Genny Smith Has Left the Mountain (Obituary)

Genny Smith, beloved Eastern Sierra writer, publisher, environmentalist and activist, passed away on March 4, 2018. She was 95. The mountains have lost a great friend.

Smith (neé Hall) was born in San Francisco and raised in Portland, Oregon where she graduated from Reed College with a degree in Political Science. During WWII, she worked with the Red Cross in Utah and learned to ski. That pastime brought her to Mammoth Lakes and its natural surroundings. Her passion for the area led her to develop a number of guidebooks about the Eastern Sierra, as well as become an active participant in efforts to protect and preserve its wilderness.

She is known for her part in writing, publishing and editing numerous books about Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area. Her first book, Mammoth Lakes Sierra, detailing trails, geology, and plants and animals, was published by the Sierra Club in 1959 and went through seven editions, becoming a popular guidebook for visitors. She then wrote Deepest Valley which provided similar information about 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. Smith’s final book Sierra East: Edge of the Great Basin collected the writings of numerous experts to present additional information about the Eastern Sierra.

Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through to the 1970s, an initiative was undertaken to develop a new trans-Sierra road that would connect Mammoth Lakes to the west side by way of Minaret Summit. Appalled by potential desecration of Reds Meadow, Smith joined forces with such notable Sierra enthusiasts as Judge Ray Sherwin, whose grandfather had developed the Sherwin toll road, and Ike Livermore, resources secretary under Governor Reagan. Smith was a tireless and skillful champion, organizing letter-writing campaigns, countering mis-information propagated by the opposition with facts and figures, and testifying in front of political committees to explain the potential damage and expense such a road would bring about.

The road opponents, using their contacts in Washington DC, were able to successfully enlist the help of President Nixon, just before the Watergate scandal broke. In June 1972, Governor Reagan led a group of reporters and dignitaries on horseback up to Summit Meadow for a press conference in which he announced that Nixon had canceled the funds for the road, and there would be no new trans-Sierra road. Smith and her teammates had won a significant victory for nature lovers past and present. Smith was consistently humble about the part that she played in stopping the road. She said she was just good at getting people to work together.

Smith also wrote about the damage inflicted on Mono Lake and Owens Valley when the City of Los Angeles began piping water away from the Eastern Sierra. She was instrumental in limiting the amount of water that could be taken in order to preserve those natural areas.

In 2016, as part of its annual Lakes Legends Days during Labor Day weekend, Robert and Sue Joki, owners of the Gallery at Twin Lakes, christened its newly acquired 19th century design Whitehall rowboat as the “Genny Smith.” Smith was in town for the festivities. When a participant suggested that she take Smith out in the rowboat where she could enjoy the outing under a parasol, Smith responded, “It’s a deal!” In honoring Smith, the Jokis hoped to thank Smith for her decades of service to the Eastern Sierra and ensure that her legacy would be recognized and preserved.

She also received the Andrea Mead Lawrence award in 2017 from the Mono Lake Committee, a conservation group that she helped found. She and Lawrence were good friends.

Smith’s friend Greg Newbry recently arranged for a helicopter ride so Smith could enjoy one last visit to Thousand Island Lake and the surrounding area. I had the good fortune to encounter Smith soon afterward and ask about her ride. Her unbridled enthusiasm revealed the depth of her passion for the Eastern Sierra. Her face lit up as she talked about how much of the area she had gotten to see again. I hope she has a good view from where she is now. She is already missed.


© 2018 Jennifer K. Crittenden