“Mutant” conscientious objectors built a home in the Eastern Sierra
“Pinko commies” who refused to go to war in Vietnam once roamed the Eastside. Townsfolk were afraid of the drugs and left-leaning ideology that came with the red threat, and were told that a mutated gene had turned otherwise red-blooded American boys into communists. A large congregation of them were being sent to camp and live in the Owens Valley.
The “communists” were actually draft-aged boys in the late 1960s and early ‘70s who were conscientious objectors (COs). Boys, aged 18, 19 and 20 from around the country who refused to fight and kill based on religious reasons, were sent to California to work at California Ecology Corps camps, once the Civilian Conservation Corps. They were essentially minimum security prisons where inmates were firefighters, and a precursor to the California Conservation Corps. California Governor Ronald Reagan transformed the Owens Valley Conservation Camp outside Bishop, along with six other camps in the state, into camps for COs.
Some of those COs fell in love with the area and made it home after the war, despite the initial antipathy by locals.
A half-page editorial in the Inyo Register, circa 1971, opined that these American boys were inflicted with communist ideals—a mutant gene. Former Inyo Ecology resident Fiddlin’ Pete Watercott said the letter warned that the gene also made the boys artistic, because communism and creativity go hand-in-hand. It also predicted that some COs would marry Bishop daughters, passing the gene on to their grandchildren.
The inmates called their softball team “The Mutos.”
The editorial also prophesized that the boys would turn the Owens Valley into the “cesspool of the country,” CO and local contractor Chet Baker told The Sheet.
These boys fought fires, built dams, facilities and parks throughout Inyo and Mono counties. Bishop local and CO Robert Elliott said the crew built a dam in Lone Pine, constructed a park behind the Mono Inn and helped fortify buildings at Bodie when it first became a State Park. Watercott worked on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Steve Maurer, author of “CAL FIRE: San Bernardino, Inyo and Mono Counties” told The Sheet that the COs helped find missing hikers and built facilities in Death Valley. They also built the Conservation Building at the Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop.
America has been providing conscientious objectors with an alternative to serving in the military for religious or moral reasons since 1661 in Massachusetts, and later the Civilian Public Service during World War II.
The number of inmate firefighters at minimum security prisons started to dwindle in the early 1970s at the same time COs from around the country needed to fulfill their civil service requirements. Reagan brought the two together in 1971 and turned Conservation Camps into Ecology Centers. COs were welcome from around the country.