Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Covelo Celebrates Richard Wilson, the Man Who Stopped the Damming of the Eel River and Flooding of Round Valley

Richard and Susan Wilson in the 1960s [Image from University of California, Berkeley]

A celebration to honor Richard Wilson at Live Power Farm in Covelo on Saturday, April 29, 2023, expanded into a reflection on the historical contributions of tribal leaders, agricultural innovators, and efforts to promote the environmental and social health of the Valley going forward.

Wilson is one of the Valley’s most well-known adopted sons. Born into a wealthy Southern California family in 1933, he settled on a ranch on Buck Mountain outside Covelo in 1957. From there, he became involved in a series of high-profile historic events, with long-lasting local and state-wide repercussions. He’s widely credited with playing a key role in bringing an end to the big-dam era in California water politics. Not long after he settled into his life as a rancher, he learned that the Army Corps of Engineers was planning to build a 730-foot tall dam called the Dos Rios. It would have flooded the Valley and sent the Eel River’s water to southern California. The government tried to get the tribe to agree to the termination, but tribal leaders joined Wilson in persuading then-Governor Ronald Reagan to scuttle the project in 1969.

In 1994, Ted Simon chronicled the  project’s defeat in a book called “The River Stops Here: Saving Round Valley, a Pivotal Chapter in California’s Water Wars.” 

In a 380-page oral history at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, Wilson told that story and more. He spoke about his fights with Louisiana Pacific, his tenure as the director of the Department of Forestry from 1991-1999, and his efforts to implement a sustainable forestry plan. As recently as 2020, he co-wrote a policy piece for the Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal about his thoughts on the need for an independent forest and resource management agency.

Wilson also fought hard against a proposed 8,500-acre timeshare subdivision for 30,000 people in Dos Rios called My Ranch, another fight that pitted neighbors against each other.

Following the defeat of My Ranch, Wilson introduced Alan Chadwick to Covelo in 1973. Hundreds of students of organic and biodynamic farming studied at Chadwick’s garden project, including Steven and Gloria Decater. Chadwick only stayed in Covelo for five years, but the Decaters’ Live Power Farm, largely inspired by Chadwick’s teaching, continues.

- Advertisement -

At Saturday’s celebration, Wilson listened as panelists thanked him for encouraging them to pursue higher education, helping them make it on their farms, and giving them work when money was tight. 

 Norma Matherly (left), a neighbor of Wilson’s, and Gloria Decater, of Live Power Farm, where the event was held [Picture by Sarah Reith]

Wilson’s neighbor, Norma Matherly, who arranged the event with Gloria Decater, told a full house that the work of Wilson and his allies, including Round Valley tribal member Ida Soares, is never done — especially with the plans for the Dos Rios Dam still on a shelf somewhere.

She told the story behind an old black and white photo of Soares with Reagan in Sacramento.

“Richard had been working on it for a long time,” Matherly said, of Wilson’s tireless efforts to keep the dam out of the valley. “But apparently it was Ida Soares who stood up in front of Reagan, apparently a really feisty Native woman, and she said, ‘You pushed our people over into this valley 150 years ago to create a home. And we went. And we created a home. And now you’re telling me that you’re going to flood our valley?’ And she said, ‘Over my dead body.’ So Reagan, on that moment, vetoed the project. What that tells us is that it takes all of us to work together to create change. And here we are living in this beautiful protected valley for now. But as Ron (Lincoln, a Wailacki elder who was fourteen at the time of the proposed dam) mentioned, that may or may not last if we don’t step up and continue the work.”

Another celebrated son of Round Valley is William Bauer, a tribal member who is now the program director for the American Indian and Indigenous Studies minor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. He is the author of a collection of oral histories of tribal members and a book about Native historians called “California Through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History.” He grew up with the lore of Reagan visiting Round Valley after the defeat of the Dos Rios Dam. He said the Native opposition to it was both extraordinary and part of the wider national story about reservations being flooded, treaties broken, and resistance building. 

“Because across the United States, in the 1940s and the 1950s, dams were put up and Indigenous lands were flooded, against the widespread opposition of Indigenous peoples,” he reminded the crowd. “So the way in which Richard and the tribal community come together and make an argument that prevents the dams from being constructed, is actually pretty exceptional…what strikes me is how much this is part of a movement called the Red Power movement of the 1960s, and how this is part of a broader civil rights story.”

Steve Bundy, who worked with Wilson in the 70s and came to Live Power Farm even before Gloria, said the idea for the dam came to Covelo long before the modern consciousness about the environmental movement and civil rights. It was, however, just a few years after the catastrophic flood of 1964, which killed a dozen people and caused massive property damage.

“Many people’s reaction was, this will happen,” he said. ‘It’ll happen because it’s progress. It’ll happen because it’s economic growth. Because the dominant theory is, we control nature. We’re going to stop the flooding. We’re going to make it all work for economic growth.”

Bundy said Wilson also brought in friends from the outside, who were able to tell the Valley’s story, emphasizing one key point: “This doesn’t make any sense. So how do you show it doesn’t make any sense? Well, Richard hired an economist, and he took on the Army Corps of Engineers’ cost-benefit analysis, which recorded, as a benefit for the whole valley, the fact that it would never flood again!”

- Advertisement -

Finally, Wilson spoke about the need to keep ecological concerns in mind when economic opportunities present themselves. Speaking quietly and standing without his cane, he said, “The message out of all of this discussion is, tread with care. When ideas are being professed, make sure you have a way to really work them through. When you have a view of something that I think you truly cherish, you can make mistakes. And sometimes, you never can get them back.”

- Advertisement -


  1. They need to build it & flood that place forever.
    The place is a toxic dump wasteland. Leave most the people there to drown when they do it.

    • Glad you’re not my doctor. Sending prayers and good vibes your way. You clearly need them more then I do!!

  2. Thank you for an excellent article celebrating an exceptional community.
    Congratulations to who participated in this event and to all those that have lived in Round valley and its surrounding beautiful country.
    Kudos to all who have collaborated here , raised families, worked, struggled and learned of the messiness and beauty of life and human nature .
    This determination, courage, and resilience ,
    the spirit of coloring outside the lines is a gift to all that see such qualities as truth.

  3. I read the book many years ago. It’s one that I will always keep in my library. Growing up in Northern Mendocino County, it had a profound impact on me. The thought that Round Valley was nearly flooded and obliterated is frightening. To lose that valley and its history is one of the worst things that could have happened. Thankfully, Mr. Wilson and Ida Soares kept this from taking place. The fact that they convinced Reagan is very fortunate.

Join the Conversation

Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

Today's News


News from the Week