The Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s 2023 Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program (WIP) Summit gathered innovative leaders, scientists, and land managers from California’s Sierra-Cascade to discuss their work addressing critical environmental and economic issues affecting the region.
“Over the past few years, it has become clear the California Sierra-Cascade is at an inflection point,” said Angela Avery, executive officer for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. “On one hand we’ve got wildfires, climate change, extreme weather, and degraded ecosystems, all of which continue to pose an enormous threat to our landscapes and rural communities. But, on the other hand, we’ve got leaders and organizations in this region that are doing amazing work, more work than ever before, to address these challenges in a head-on fashion.”
California Natural Resources Association Secretary Wade Crowfoot, the Summit’s keynote speaker, agreed, adding that he is optimistic for the future because of the forest-restoration work getting done.
“How do we ensure that we can help build a region that is prosperous and provides opportunities for people who don’t live there to visit, but that also maintains its incredible natural environment and incredible biodiversity? That maintains opportunity for folks at all income levels?” he asked the audience. “There is so much work that needs to get done and I’m so excited that you are all doing it.”
Scaling forest restoration and wildfire resilience: not just why but how
With the exclusion of frequent fire from most of the Sierra-Cascade landscape over the past 100-plus years, one of the main issues facing the region is an immense build-up of flammable material in the mixed-conifer forests. Discussing how forests have changed over the years and strategies currently taking place to help scale resilience across the landscape were forest-health and fire-management specialists Dr. Kristen Shive, Lesley Yen, and Janet Hatfield.
Hatfield, executive director of the Whitebark Institute, and Lesley Yen, Inyo National Forest supervisor, highlighted how their organizations and partners are tackling many of these issues through the Eastern Sierra Climate and Communities Resilience Project (ESSCRP). This multi-beneficial, landscape-scale project focuses on protecting the town of Mammoth Lakes and improving the resilience of the surrounding forest.
The project, which has begun implementation in some areas and is nearing completion of environmental permitting for the majority of the project area , grew out of a multi-year pre-planning process led by the Whitebark Institute. This included conducting a needs assessment, developing proposed actions, and building consensus among interested parties. Each are important steps that must be accomplished prior to advancing to the environmental permitting and implementation phases in the life of a forest and wildfire resilience project like the ESSCRP.
Fire severity has increased over the years, according to Shive, because of excess fuels in the forests and a rise in average spring and summer temperatures. Restoring the forests through mechanical thinning and prescribed fires is key to remedying this, she added, along with managing, rather than fully suppressing, naturally occurring fires in higher elevations that don’t threaten communities or infrastructure.
“The two biggest things that are causing the most issues is, of course, first that we have more people and infrastructure in wildland areas. So that is putting a lot more people at risk,” added Shive, a fuels and forest specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension Program. “The other is fire severity.”
While reducing fuels is common sense to most scientists and land managers, making that a reality in rural areas where there is a limited workforce and a lack of sawmills to process the material makes that a daunting task.
Restoration and recreation: a recipe for revitalization
In California’s predominantly rural Sierra-Cascade, stable economic opportunities are few and far between. This is particularly true outside major recreation hubs like Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, and in areas impacted by large damaging wildfires. Delving into strategies to bring sustainable livelihoods to other parts of the region, mainly through forest-restoration and recreation, were Camille Swezy and Greg Williams.
While forest-health treatments are needed to build resilient landscapes, a scarcity of sawmills and biomass-processing facilities creates incredible hurdles many land managers must overcome. Providing more regional sawmills, even smaller ones like the mill J&C Enterprises reopened in Crescent Mills, California, soon after the Dixie Fire devastated neighboring Greenville, is a good start.
“Our goal was obviously to create an outlet for all that material, but also to create hope, and create jobs, and something exciting,” said Camille Swezy, operations forester with J&C Enterprises.
Williams got his start as a pioneer mountain biker and guide on the now-famous trails around Downieville, California. Since then, his vision and aspirations have grown beyond simply connecting people to world-class outdoor experiences.
The nonprofit Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, which Williams founded, is focused on the Connected Communities project that envisions 15 Sierra Nevada downtowns, from Chester and Susanville in the north to Sierraville and Truckee in the south, linked by a trail system for mountain biking, hiking, motorcycling, and other outdoor activities.
At the heart of both their work is an effort to create economic engines that, together, can sustain rural communities in ways that steward the natural resources, improve access, and increase the resilience of California’s Sierra-Cascade.
Win-win projects: investing in people and integrating values
Recent local efforts to revitalize the Mariposa Creek Parkway, anchored on one end by a county-led affordable housing project, include conservation activities and an expanded trail network on two parcels acquired by the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, in close partnership with the Southern Miwuk Nation.
As Bridget Fithian of the Sierra Foothill Conservancy shared, true collaboration, particularly across a cultural divide marked by a history of violence and betrayal, is often challenging. Her joint presentation with Tribal Council Secretary for the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, Tara Fouch-Moore, on the Mariposa Creek Parkway Land Acquisitions showed, however, deep tribal involvement can also lead to better outcomes.
The partnership was made possible by recognizing the value of Southern Sierra Miwuk participation and supporting the contribution of tribal members’ time and knowledge. Tribal input resulted in the integration of artistic interpretive displays featuring Miwuk history and culture, and both revegetation and trail plans that enhance public access to the area and tribal access to cultural resources.
Together with the broader efforts by the city and county of Mariposa, the Mariposa Creek Parkway land acquisitions serve as an ideal example of the kinds of multi-benefit land conservation projects supported by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.
Unfinished business: opportunities for a new legislature
To conclude the ninth annual WIP Summit, former California State Senator Bob Wieckowski (2014–2022) echoed his appreciation for all the work being done throughout the Sierra-Cascade. He emphasized the need, however, for agencies and other organizations to continue fighting for funding to continue the much-needed work to protect our forests and help boost economic opportunities.
“Do not back down! Your priorities and the work you are doing, and the importance of a healthy forest, is just as important as all the other priorities (in Sacramento),” an enthusiastic Wieckowski exclaimed. “If the forest burns down, we’re done! So, keep chipping away! And keep up the good work!”