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Genny Smith


1921 - 2018 Obituary Condolences
Genny Smith Obituary
Genny Smith

July 6, 1921 - March 4, 2018

Genny Smith, whose life was dedicated to the love and preservation of the eastern Sierra, passed away peacefully on March 4th at her home at The Forum at Rancho San Antonio in Cupertino, California, surrounded by loving friends and neighbors. A brightest of stars has faded; her legacy lives on in the trees, flowers and birds gracing our beloved wilderness.
The Forum was where Genny wintered, yet her heartfelt home was the summer cabin she purchased in Mammoth Lakes Basin, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, in the 1950s. Throughout her life, Genny was an astute editor, publisher, and author of many books celebrating the environmental wonders of the Eastern Sierra. She was a remarkable environmental warrior, leading the battle to stop a freeway across the Sierra from Fresno to Mammoth Lakes. Genny was a founding member of the Mono Lake Committee and mentor to legions of environmental soldiers. Most of all, she was a dearly beloved friend.
Genny was born in San Francisco on July 6, 1921, and raised in Portland, Oregon, where she graduated from Reed College. During WWII, she worked with the Red Cross, both in Hawaii and in Utah, where she learned to ski. As a kindergarten teacher in Bakersfield, California, she became a devotee of the nascent ski resort at Mammoth Mountain. That pastime inspired her love of the Mammoth Lakes area. Her passion for the area led her to develop a number of guidebooks about the Eastern Sierra, as well as becoming a leading participant in efforts to protect and preserve its wilderness.
She wrote, published, and edited numerous books about the eastern Sierra Nevada. Her first book, Mammoth Lakes Sierra, detailing trails, landforms, geology, and plants and animals, was published by the Sierra Club in 1959 and went through seven editions. She followed with Deepest Valley, which describes the Owens Valley. She also edited and published Old Mammoth, a classic book of the history of Mammoth, written by Adele Reed; and two books on mining, The Lost Cement Mine by James Wright and Mammoth Gold by Gary Caldwell. Genny's final book, Sierra East: Edge of the Great Basin, collects the writings of numerous experts to present additional information about the land that she loved.
Genny marshalled the forces that led to the creation of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, high-elevation peaks embracing the necklace of pristine lakes—Emerald, Shadow, 1000 Island—nestled under the dramatic silhouette of the Minarets. As part of her effort to stop the proposed Trans-Sierra Highway, Genny enlisted the help of such notable Sierra enthusiasts as Judge Ray Sherwin, whose grandfather had developed the Sherwin toll road, and Ike Livermore, Resources Secretary under Governor Reagan. Genny was a tireless and skillful champion, organizing letter-writing campaigns, countering misinformation with facts and figures, and testifying before political committees. Hundreds of letter-size maps in color were mailed and passed out. This was before the days of color printers; Genny would laugh, saying her fingers took months to heal from hand-coloring each and every map. In June, 1972, she organized a horseback expedition for Governor Reagan, reporters, and dignitaries along the proposed highway route. Inspired by the sublime views, Reagan agreed to help stop the highway and to save the extensive wilderness connecting Yosemite National Park with Devil's Postpile National Monument.
Genny and her teammates had won a significant victory for all future generations to enjoy. If you asked Genny about anything she had accomplished, even her books, she would say what she always said: "It wasn't me, it was the effort of everyone else."
Acting for the Mono Lake Committee, Genny also wrote about the damage inflicted on Mono Lake and Owens Valley by the City of Los Angeles piping water from the Eastern Sierra. Her early leadership on the Mono Lake Committee Board of Directors helped grow the fledgling membership, which has now sustained nearly 40 years of grassroots protection of Mono Lake. She was instrumental in raising funds for the legal defense of Mono Lake, resulting in a landmark ruling that limited the water that could be diverted from the lake, thus preserving the nesting site of the California gull and an ecological wonder of the eastern Sierra Nevada.
Her environmental concern did not stop with the Sierra Nevada. In 1977 she became intensely involved in the development of the California Desert Conservation Area plan for the Mojave Desert, becoming Chairperson of the Advisory Committee. Her clarity of thought and ability to bridge divides between polarized stakeholders was key in the final wording of the BLM Desert Plan and in 1994 led to the proclamation of large areas of the Mojave as the Mojave National Preserve.
As an advocate for the environment, Genny's style was humble. In a quiet, questioning manner, Genny would bring people together for a common cause. For example, she encouraged a retired judge, a pack outfit owner, a trucker's union representative, and a commercial resort investor to work together. Genny would listen to each person's ideas, drawing out the essential issues for each voice and each presentation at public hearings. Genny advised her fellow activists to do his/her homework, be prepared with all the facts and figures, and present a compelling argument in a clear and concise way, with a path to resolution. Genny's quiet but determined activism has inspired generations of people to explore, tread lightly, and protect the Sierra Nevada and the California Desert.
Genny loved to travel, and her honeymoon with Ward Smith in 1968 was leading a Sierra Club trip to New Zealand. Thereafter there were trips to Antarctica, the Aleutians and Alaska, Patagonia, and Churchill in Quebec to see polar bears. For her 80th birthday she trekked the Everest Loop and saw tigers and rhinos from the back of an elephant in Nepal.
Genny and Ward moved from Palo Alto to the Forum at Rancho San Antonio in Cupertino in 1991, where she again became intensely active in her community, serving as a Director of the Forum from 1994 to 2000 and Chief Financial Officer from 1998 to 2000.
Genny is predeceased by her sister Camilla and by her beloved and supportive husband Ward C. Smith (1906-1998), of the U.S. Geological Survey and Stanford University. She is survived by Ward's children, Alexia Smith of Lexington, VA, David Smith of Williamstown, MA, and Margaret Stewart-Smith of Eugene, OR, and by two grandchildren, Alex Smith of Ann Arbor, MI, and Caitlin Stull of Ellicott City, MD. Genny is beloved by a wide community of friends, and Genny's legacy to the eastern Sierra Nevada and the California desert is ongoing through her charitable bequests to the Mono Lake Committee and Eastern Sierra Land Trust among others.
A celebration of Genny's life will take place on Sunday, September 2, 2018, at the Mammoth Museum in the Hayden Cabin in Mammoth Lakes, California.
Published in San Francisco Chronicle on Mar. 18, 2018
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