In memory of John Kirkpatrick

How do you fight someone as big, something as powerful, as the monied, landed interests on the west side of this valley? The words of a song—“Yokohlahoma”—reminded me that it starts with a small handful of people who know our history and know what is right as well as what’s wrong.

“The corporation voter is put in the saddle,” wrote an outraged Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1973. He was dissenting the 6-3 decision in Salyer et. al. v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District granting the legality of property-weighted voting in that water district. In that case, the Salyer family, big landowners neighboring Boswell landholdings in the lakebed who didn’t have quite as many votes as Boswell, had challenged property-weighted voting after Boswell had flooded them out (as well as most of the neighbors) in the 1969 flood, keeping his own chosen acreage dry. The court agreed with Boswell, and Salyer became a name for the history books after selling their acreage to Boswell, proving Douglas’s point.

Fifty years later, it may seem less outrageous to have corporation “voters” in the saddle, holding the reins of our future. What’s so bad about corporate farmers? we might ask now, having lost so many of our family farmers, the ones who once held everything together.

To answer that question thoroughly, we need an immersion course in our local history topped off with a wake-up seminar on current trends in corporate land/water grabs. But we here in the Kaweah watershed have a small but important story from 15+ years ago, when the Boswell Corporation decided to build a planned unit development called Yokohl Ranch on its large cattle-country landholding in Yokohl Valley called Boston Ranch.

The plans showed elegant watercolor drawings of spacious lots holding gracious homes amid the wild and wooly primal place we know as Yokohl Valley from driving through it at various times of year, its beauty soothing the soul. Then came the fancy blueprints, the traffic circulation plans, the provision for public services and retail outlets. Then came the public “listening sessions” (not hearings) where we were allowed to see, but not protest the future they were laying out not just for the valley but for Tulare County as well, which included putting 10,000 people in a naturally almost-dry watershed above most of the county’s residents. 

“Where are you going to get the water?” we asked, knowing Yokohl Creek to be an ephemeral stream with no snowmelt runoff. “We got it,” they answered, and simply moved on whenever the question was asked. When that part of the plan finally became public, it showed withdrawals from Lake Kaweah to be held in an offstream reservoir containing ample water for the entire community they envisioned. Boswell was just using some of its cotton-growing water from down below, up above instead. No problem. We got it.

It was hard for the citizens to imagine that Boswell had that much latitude, that much legal right to water most of us are denied. But there was no one, certainly at the county level, who could object, even if Yokohl Ranch would create severe problems for county growth management, infrastructure maintenance, even other developers. The King of California had plans, and that’s good enough for y’all. The only thing that saved us was the Great Recession of 2007-8, which tabled the plan.

That, and the fact that a small handful of citizens, who called themselves the Tulare County Citizens for Responsible Growth, had decided to stand up against the plan. They dug in, and step by step, kept the corporation from just bulldozing their way through the county planning process. Essentially, they grabbed the reins of Boswell’s horse and held on. Boswell wasn’t unseated from his mount, but he couldn’t go where he wanted to, either, with all of us dangling from his bridle.

My contribution was small, as perhaps many folks’ were. We showed up when it was time, called by the few who did the strategizing, the letter writing, the testimonies, the lawsuit. Their efforts were enormous, but successful: they got the people of this county to stand up, perhaps the biggest success of all. 

But then there was that song, “Yokohlahoma.” It started in my head with a line from the song “Oklahoma”: “We know we belong to the land…” “Oh,” my heart moaned, “if we only knew ourselves that way now.” Now we only think that land belongs to us (or doesn’t belong to us, as in the case of Boston Ranch, its property lines about to take our beloved Yokohl Valley from our existence.) Knowing that we belong to the land is more and more a remnant from another time.

And yet here we were, standing up to the big corporation voter who was quite sure he was in the saddle, and we were making some headway despite that fact. So I took the song’s cue and changed some of the lyrics. The result, when I sang it, sounded a little like someone who had lost her mind, but here’s the lyrics. At least once John and Shirley Kirkpatrick, who were core members of the citizens group, were in the audience providing the kind of support only friends can give.

We know we belong to the land / And this land we belong to is grand!
And so we say—YES!! We’re coming to your RES—cue, oh Yokohl Valley
We’re gonna to come to your res-cue, Yokohl Valley, OK!
Y–O–K–O–H–L, Yokohl Vall—EEE!

And we did.

Now, having written this, I realize that what “Yokohlahoma” represents to me is a wonderful truth: that when push comes to shove, we know we belong to this place, to each other and to these neighborhoods in ways the corporate voter can never understand, can never know anything about, and can only destroy with their power. We can take this knowledge and push back on the potential destruction. We are not sitting ducks. We are members of this place. 

Trudy Wischemann has taken a sabbatical from singing to write. You can send her your shining moments of membership “insanity” c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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