Critical forest-restoration efforts help protect Little Truckee River headwaters

Apr 13, 2023 | Project Highlights

hillside meadow looking out at a water body with a tree-covered mountain behind it
Webber Lake is the headwaters of the Little Truckee River, the single largest tributary to the Truckee River and a source of water to the Feather River and the California State Water Project. Forest restoration efforts in the dense, over-crowded forests surrounding the lake and popular recreation area will help protect the region from damaging wildfires. Photography: Truckee Donner Land Trust.

Forest and watershed protection are two major goals outlined in California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan, which is why the environmental and economic benefits of Truckee Donner Land Trust’s restoration project in the Webber Lake Basin will percolate across the entire state.

“This project will reduce wildfire risk, as well as wildfire severity, which is of particular importance,” said Daniel Joannes, forest and restoration coordinator for the Truckee Donner Land Trust. “Reducing stand density and meadow encroachment will also reduce water uptake and protect a functioning meadow system, both of which are important for water supply on the Little Truckee River, a key tributary of the middle reach of the Truckee River.”

The 220-acre Webber Lake serves as the headwaters of the Little Truckee River, which is the single largest tributary of the Truckee River, a critical water source in both California and northern Nevada. In addition to serving Californians in eastern Sierra and Nevada counties as it meanders its way to the Truckee River, a portion of the Little Truckee River is also partially diverted into the Middle Fork of the Feather River, which flows into the Sierra Valley and the California State Water Project.

Both phases of Webber Lake project help protect forest and water resources

To help maximize forest health and protect this vital area from disturbances, such as drought and wildfire, The Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) funded the Truckee Donner Land Trust in 2019 to complete the Webber Lake Little Truckee River Headwaters Forest Management Phase Two project. The work, which wrapped up in the fall of 2022, thinned 174 acres of wildfire-prone tree thickets in an area adjacent to Webber Lake and removed pine trees encroaching into Upper and Lower Lacey Meadow. By reducing dangerous fuel loads in the area, the project greatly reduces the threat of a high-severity fire, which can destroy forest habitat and result in future flooding and high sedimentation intake into Webber Lake and the Little Truckee River.

Webber Lake is surrounded by mostly high and very high fire hazard severity zones. Phase two of the project is on the north side the lake in high and very high fire hazard severity zones. Phase three is to the west and southwest of the lake in a very high fire hazard severity zone.
Fire hazard severity zones around Webber Lake, mapped by CAL FIRE, illustrate the need for restoration efforts to help reduce the threat of large, damaging wildfires to the area.

These efforts complement Phase Three of the project, also funded by the SNC as part of California’s recent and historic investment in wildfire-risk reduction, which will continue thinning 300-plus acres of dense forest on the western side of Webber Lake (Phase One, funded by the SNC, created the Timber Harvest Plan that outlined the restoration efforts for both subsequent phases). Due to the overgrown conditions, both Phase Two and Phase Three locations have been deemed very high fire hazard severity zones by CAL FIRE.

Fortunately, Phase Two was successful and Phase Three is on track to start this summer.

“The hopes and goals of this project are very much being met. Phase Three is on schedule for completion in 2025. After this project is completed, there are two more sections of forestry work planned to round out the forest restoration of the Webber Lake property,” Joannes said.

Land acquisition leads to long-term stewardship and expanded recreation

While both phases help to achieve the goals of California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan and the SNC’s Watershed Improvement Program, there are other benefits to these projects, as well.

With the help of a $1 million grant from the SNC, the Truckee Donner Land Trust was able to purchase Webber Lake and Upper and Lower Lacey Meadows from private ownership in 2011. Roughly 3,000 acres in total, the acquisition of this property by the land trust not only ensures this popular tourist destination remains open to the public, complementing California’s Outdoor Access for All goals, but also that it will be managed to maximize the environmental and recreational benefits well into the future.

“At Truckee Donner Land Trust, we say protecting open space is only the beginning of our work, with a high priority set on stewardship and restoration,” Joannes said. “Particularly in a landscape fractured by a checkerboard ownership pattern, acquiring open space creates larger landscape-scale opportunities for stewardship and restoration. The Land Trust would like to thank Sierra Nevada Conservancy for their integral support in making this happen.”

To help boost recreation opportunities, the Truckee Donner Land Trust added campgrounds, host cabins, rest rooms, trail systems, and is currently restoring a historic hotel on site. A critical habitat for several threatened and endangered species, and a landscape rich in biodiversity and history, the area has become a sought-after venue for a variety of organizations conducting outdoor science camps and field trips, such as the Headwaters Science Institute’s Girls Summer Research Camp.

“Webber Lake has long been a well-loved campground by locals and visitors alike. Fuels reduction and restoration on the site serves as a benefit for all, ensuring the protection of this site for years to come,” Joannes added.

For nearly three decades, the Truckee Donner Land Trust has protected and managed more than 37,000 acres of conservation lands in the Truckee Donner region. Since 2011, this includes Webber Lake and adjacent, critical meadow ecosystems.

The SNC is proud to invest in partners like the Truckee Donner Land Trust and projects like the Webber Lake Little Truckee River Headwaters Forest Management, which ensure that the state’s cherished natural resources will continue to be successfully stewarded for the benefit of all Californians.