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Advocate hopes films will help preserve Bear River

By Liz Kellar | Staff Writer
Local film maker Jeff Litton stands next to the Bear River at the Highway 174 bridge. Litton has made a handful of films focusing on education and awareness of the river that would be dammed if the Centennial project is realized.
Elias Funez

Jeff Litton is a man on a mission.

Litton, a third-generation Nevada County resident, has made several films over the last few years that highlight the Bear River and efforts to preserve it from being dammed by the Centennial Reservoir project.

“I grew up celebrating the beauty of all the great resources around us, and that included the Bear,” Litton said. “In the Boy Scouts, I learned to whitewater kayak the very stretch of the Bear River that would be flooded” by the Centennial Dam. “So I know a little bit about what’s at stake.”

Litton’s familiarity with a section of the river that few know well is what launched his activism around stopping the Centennial, and advocating for the Bear River through film.

Litton has been working with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions since 2009, traveling around the world and looking at conservation success stories.

So fighting a dam in his own backyard was a given.

Local filmmaker Jeff Litton walks along a portion of trail next to the Bear River that is slated to be underwater from the proposed Centennial Dam.
Elias Funez

When Litton and a small group of river advocates began organizing in 2016, he said their first tactic was to reach out to advocacy groups like the South Yuba River Citizens League.

Then Litton was asked to make a film as a way to reach out to, and educate, the community. “Voice of the Bear River” was screened at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival in 2017.

That same year, Litton says, he was present at a debate between Caleb Dardick, who was then at SYRCL, and NID General Manager Rem Scherzinger.

“Shelly Covert asked a question … She said, ’What about the Nisenan?’”

Scherzinger told the crowd that the district already was working with a federally recognized tribe in Auburn, and said the Nisenan would have to work with that tribe, Litton recalled.

“That was the moment I saw I needed to make ‘We Are Here,’ for the Nisenan,” he said. “We had to tell that story, it was crucial.”

Filmmaker and advocate for Nevada County’s Bear River, Jeff Litton stands along a stretch of trail that borders the river downstream from the Highway 174 bridge. This section of river would be underwater from the proposed Centennial Dam.
Elias Funez

That film was shown at Wild & Scenic in 2019. The following year, Litton showed a 3-minute short film featuring kayakers on the Bear River, called “Whitewater in Peril.”

This summer, Litton filmed a three-day expedition down the 8.5 miles of river canyon downstream of the Highway 174 bridge. The end result, “The Hidden Bear,” shows off carved granite canyons, formidable rapids, and crystal blue water filled with fish — vistas almost never seen by visitors to a waterway that Litton acknowledges often plays second fiddle to the Yuba River.

“It was tricky, I hadn’t (ever) hiked the whole section,” he admitted with a laugh. “It’s a fairly nice trail with a few really technical parts in the first few miles.”

That first day, Litton said, they hiked eight hours, but didn’t actually get very far.

“I didn’t know this trail was here until I started this project,” he said. “I’m actually very grateful to NID. It’s allowed me to connect with this area and learn about the history.”

Litton has an alternate vision for this stretch of river – a 10-mile-long park between Rollins and Combie reservoirs to be called the Bear River Heritage Park. Minimal infrastructure improvements could include a viewing platform or a trail using the Bear River canal above the river, perhaps as a scaled-up version of the Deer Creek Tribute Trail, he said.

“If I was … operating a machine to manage water and sustain profit, if those were my only two motives (and) if there was no connection to community, of course (I) would steer the operation in the wrong direction.,” Litton said of NID’s pursuit of the Centennial Reservoir.

Local filmmaker Jeff Litton walks along a portion of trail next to the Bear River that is slated to be under water from the proposed Centennial Dam.
Elias Funez

Advocates for the dam have said increased water storage is needed, adding that local water rights could be lost if they aren’t used.

“Maybe 2021 is our year to develop a course of action, to make this a 10-mile park for the community,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to work toward … to celebrate what’s best about the places that we are so fortunate to be able to call home, this wonderful landscape.”

Litton stressed that moving forward, the message is less about being anti-dam and more about creating a legacy. He has created a Facebook group, Fans of Bear River, and urges community members to engage with the NID district board members and attend meetings when possible.

“It’s a chance to do something really special for the community, going into perpetuity,” he said.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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