Genny Smith: 1922-2018
Born in San Francisco in 1922, Genny Smith died on March 4, 2018. She was 96 years old.
Genny Smith loved being outdoors. She had a quiet cabin in the Lakes Basin, and was a writer and historian who loved to share what she knew and what she saw. In the 1950s she organized a group that would eventually stop a trans-sierra highway from being built through Mammoth Lakes, and later helped sue the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to stop them from decimating Mono Lake.
She wanted future generations to experience the same joy the mountains and lakes and birds had given her. She was a devoted conservationist.
Smith attended Reed College, where she earned a degree in Political Science. After a stint with the Red Cross during World War II, she married Gerhard Schumacher and began teaching in Bakersfield. A local ski club introduced her to Mammoth Lakes and the Eastern Sierra. Eventually, she started coming in the summer to hike and backpack.
Genny penned some of the first guidebooks to the Eastside. “Mammoth Lakes Sierra,” her first book, was published in 1959. Her second, “Deepest Valley,” covers the Owens Valley and was published in 1962. She started her own company, Genny Smith Publishing, and continued to publish books about local history. “Sierra East: Edge of the Great Basin,” her last book, was published in 2000.
She acquired her cabin in the Lakes Basin in the 1950s and married Ward Smith in 1968. The two spent summers at the cabin until his death in 1998.
Genny wasn’t a big woman, but she halted an entire road from being built. Arguably, her most famous achievement was stopping the construction of a trans-Sierra highway, which would have cut through the heart of the mountains from Reds Meadow to the westside via Minaret Road. Upon learning about the project in 1958, she began writing letters and gathering a team of like-minded activists to start what would become a 27-year battle to thwart the State’s efforts to build the road.
It wasn’t until 1972 that then-Governor Ronald Reagan announced after a pack trip through Middle Fork Valley, that the road would not be built. Jack Fisher chronicled the fight in his 2014 book, “Stopping the Road.”
Sydney Quinn, one of Genny’s oldest and dearest friends, described her as reserved and quiet. When she spoke she got straight to the point and didn’t mince words.
While working to expand Death Valley National Park in the early 1990s, Genny gave valuable advice to the crew of young environmentalists leading that charge: don’t trust the fat cats. One of those young activists was Michael Prather, who went on to cofound of the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society.
At about the same time, Dempsey Development began to pursue development of Snowcreek Ski Area. A meeting took place between the developers and local environmentalists in the Lakes Basin that included helicopter rides and a fancy spread of food. Prather said Genny looked at the amenities then turned to him and said, “Beware, there are sharks in the water.”
In 2017, Genny received the Andrea Lawrence Award, presented by the Mono Lake Committee, of which she was a founding board member. Genny and Andrea were close friends.
Genny brought valuable insight and strategy to the fledgling committee as it set out to take the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to court, said Executive Director Geoffrey McQuilkin.
She had a leadership philosophy about wanting to share ideas but have people discover them on their own, McQuilkin said. The committee took that philosophy to heart.
Robert Joki, owner of Twin Lakes Gallery, started Genny Smith Days Pioneer Festival on Labor Day.
As a young, eager environmentalist, Greg Newbry was befriended by Genny in 1975. He sought out her sage advice while trying to stop an aggregate plant from being installed at The Borrow Pits at the base of The Sherwins, in Mammoth Meadow.
“She was a genius to the trees and the flowers and the wilderness,” he said.
In her fights against various industry Goliaths who threatened local wilderness for profit, Genny was organized, factual, and always kept a cool head. “Don’t just sit up there and scream,” she’d say.