An extensive examination of the Sierra Nevada, the most comprehensive of its kind ever done in California and perhaps the nation, confirms what many people have known or suspected-that the health and well-being of important elements in this mountainous ecosystem are in jeopardy.
While there is no easy "fix." the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP), a mammoth 3-year study ordered by Congress, reveals that most of the bioregion's environmental problems can be solved. The SNEP team of scientists scrutinized the bioregion' s climate, timber, plants, wildlife, fire, water, air quality, people, and communities and presented the findings in June to Congress and the public.
Over thousands of pages in four volumes the SNEP report describes and assesses ecological conditions in the Sierra bioregion and the human activities and natural processes that created them. The report doesn't prescribe specific solutions, but offers strategy options for achieving or improving the health, well-being, and sustainability of the ecosystem' s major components: fire and fuels. plants and wildlife, old-growth forests, rangelands, watersheds and aquatic biodiversity, air quality, and human communities.
The report is intended to promote a better understanding of the Sierra Nevada ecosystem as a web of biological and social influences that interconnect and interact. The mix of lands and resources and intermingled public and private land requires that management strategies extend across property or jurisdictional boundaries and be flexible enough to adapt to ever-changing ecological and social conditions.
The SNEP team concluded that collaboration among the public, private interests, and government agencies is "the most significant principle" to emerge from the strategies Collaboration enables stakeholders to function as interacting parts of a whole system.
California' s Secretary for Resources Doug Wheeler, addressing a two-day public workshop on the SNEP in Placerville June 28-29, acknowledged that the traditional means of devising and imposing solutions from Washington or Sacramento doesn't necessarily get the job done right.
Rather, collaboration and consensus helps bridge barriers and boundaries to resolving conflicts involving resource use. Collaboration-working together to achieve mutual goals-has proved to be an effective tool for balancing California' s environmental and economic needs elsewhere in the state, says Wheeler. Cooperation launched the innovative Natural Community Conservation Planning (NCCP) pilot program to preserve coastal sage scrub habitat in Southern California, and is helping to resolve conflicts over the Bay-Delta, and to find ways of improving coastal salmon habitat on the North Coast.
"We do not need a regional government to provide a solution; we need collaboration and good will in order to work across jurisdictional lines," Wheeler told the workshop. "Using the good science that SNEP provides, we will find a way to develop consensus in the Sierra."
New Sierra Era
Completion of the SNEP may signify the start of a new era in resource management for the Sierra Nevada, which covers more than one-fifth of the state. The unprecedented volume of science in one complete package provides a tool for people to examine and test "against their own sense of validity and need for change," the report says.
As Ted Hullar, a University of California professor and former chancellor, said at the public workshop, "SNEP is giving us new ways to see what we thought we already knew pretty well.
"In a real sense, it is the beginning of a new way of thinking together about the future of the Sierra Nevada," he said. "Our challenge is to look honestly and openly at our agreements and our differences and find a common way based on knowledge to address the issues and solve the problems before us."
The University' s Centers for Water and Wildland Resources in Davis managed the $6.5 million SNEP in an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station and served on the steering committee that selected the 37-member science team, along with the Interior Department, National Park Service, Forest Service, California Academy of Sciences, and a representative of the National Academy of Sciences. Don Erman, director of the UC Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, led the SNEP team.
Governor Pete Wilson, furthering the work of the 1991 "Sierra Summit" and other ongoing projects in the mountain range, has provided $125,000 in the state budget to help Sierra communities use the information. The University has proposed creating a permanent Sierra Nevada center to help put the research to use.
The Sierra Nevada, though still rich in biodiversity and rare in beauty, has sustained considerable damage in the last 150 years inflicted by non-Indian settlers who began flocking to the region in the Gold Rush and are still coming.
"Many riparian areas were obliterated in the search for the golden flakes" said Rick Kattlemann, a University of California researcher at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab and one of the SNEP's 19 consultants.
Hydraulic mining, grazing, timber harvesting, road-building, and rapid urban development have taken their toll, degrading soil, streams, air quality, vegetation, and wildlife. Following is a sampling of the SNEP findings:
Watershed Reinvestment - Diversions from Sierra rivers, lakes, and streams have contributed enormously to California' s economy, but at the expense of aquatic life and riparian habitat, the most altered and impaired in the Sierra. Non-native species, such as trout stocked for recreational fishing, are widespread and abundant, contributing to the decline of various natives.
Reestablishing native species such as Chinook salmon, restoring stream-flow patterns, and relocating roads and campgrounds that contribute to erosion would improve conditions.
'The system can be remarkably resilient if we let it," Kattleman said. "The vegetation recovery is remarkable. Where restoration is occurring, the future looks bright."
Restoring aquatic health will require reinvestment in the upper watershed. Beneficiaries of the high quality mountain water could raise reinvestment funding with fees, water allocations that can be more readily traded, or a diversion tax on downstream water-users similar to mineral severance and timber yield taxes.
Michael Jackson, a Plumas County lawyer-environmentalist who helped create the Quincy Library Group and represents the Regional Council of Rural Counties, said since water from the Sierra supplies the Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta, it s only fair that beneficiaries help fund restoration.
"We can' t repair the Sierra without some (financial) return by people who benefit," Jackson said.
Forest Health - While forest health in the Sierra is generally good, the east slope is experiencing a devastating bark beetle infestation affecting 20 to 30 percent of the trees in some areas, and up to 80 percent in the worst-hit spots. Fuel buildup in some areas and timber harvest have increased the severity of wildfires, but logging with adequate fuels reduction can help reduce fire risk.
Old-Growth - Judging from the national parks, which provide the best indication of how much old-growth covered the Sierra in pre-settlement times, less than half remains.
"We have cut our way through most of the high quality late successional forest (old growth), and there isn't much left," Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington professor of plant ecology and SNEP Science Team member told the workshop.
Although the Sierra hasn't experienced as much clear-cutting as the Pacific Northwest, there are fewer high-quality stands of the most harvested timber types.
Oak Woodlands - Oak woodlands may be the most threatened vegetation type in the Sierra, not because of firewood cutting or failure to regenerate, but because the rolling hills where they grow are preferred sites for development, which fragments oak stands and decreases habitat values. Nevertheless, oak woodlands are more stable than previously thought, and can be regenerated.
Air Quality - Pollution drifting from Central Valley and Bay Area cities and industries raises Sierra ozone levels, while in many urban areas, air quality is improving. Summer ozone from the Central Valley harms the forests, and nitrates from winter highway travel in the Lake Tahoe Basin degrade water quality in Lake Tahoe.
Smoke in the Sierra is inevitable, but is far less harmful if generated by prescribed burning to reduce fuels than by large wildfires and winter woodstoves. Even significantly increased prescribed burning would not be as polluting as the extensive wildfires certain to burn without such preventive measures.
After release of the SNEP report, Erman of UC Davis moderated a workshop for 375 local residents, interest groups, government officials, environmentalists, and government resources managers at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds.
Three panels of SNEP scientists and consultants described the findings in the report. Participants then formed small groups that suggested how to: use the findings, share and build upon the data base, improve understanding and management of the Sierra Nevada, and identify the role of the public, the agencies, the university, and others in developing activities and processes.
Their suggestions included:
Where to Find the SNEP Report
The SNEP report, embodied in four volumes, is available on the Internet through the California Environmental Resources Evaluation System (CERES), and can be accessed at public libraries with Internet connections at ceres.ca.gov/snep or the Alexandria Project at the University of California, http://alexandria.sdc.ucsb.edu Copies can be ordered by writing to the SNEP, Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, University of California, Davis, 1323 Academic Surge, Davis, CA 95616. For further information, call the SNEP office at 916-752-7992 or 916-752-8070.