What Difference Have We Made This Year?

Thoughts by Izzy Martin, CEO, The Sierra Fund

December 19, 2011

Cleaning off my desk to prepare for holiday time off and a new year is a bit like an archeological dig.  Dredging through the reports, magazines, letters and files I find lots of evidence of activity in the Sierra Nevada and the larger world – but what has been the impact of this work?  Especially, what has The Sierra Fund’s impact been on the ground?

Over the last year there have been real improvements in the quality of our place because of our work:

Clean Water in the River: The small creeks and rivers of the Sierra Nevada (and the entire state) ran cleaner and clearer all summer 2011 – and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future – because suction dredge mining for gold has been stopped in their waters due to our successful work with allies at Friends of the River, the Karuk Tribe and others. We brought research findings from USGS and other experts about the impact of suction dredge mining on mobilizing quicksilver/mercury left behind in the region by 19th century gold miners to the attention of policy makers in California. This information combined with other evidence of the destructive impact of suction dredge mining, applied at the right time and place, led to a moratorium on issuance of suction dredge mining until regulations that protect the environment and a fee structure that pays for the program are put into place.

Proper Assessment of Abandoned Mines on Public Land: Our evidence of the possibility of serious public exposure to mining toxins on public lands (documented in our Gold County Recreational Trails Survey published in 2010) as well as our efforts to document the impact of abandoned mines on the state’s water quality has instigated three new assessments of abandoned mines on public lands begun in the last year:

  • The USFS hired TetraTech to assess the abandoned mine in their Foresthill trail system that our study had found that tested high in lead, arsenic and asbestos.  We have shared the results of our study with TetraTech and are looking forward to learning what their tests reveal.

  • The BLM hired URS to assess their lands along Deer Creek outside of Nevada City, including the Tribute Trail (for which The Sierra Fund served as project lead).   Early in the development of the trail, which went directly through several abandoned mines, The Sierra Fund tested the material on various trail routes and suggested re-routing the trail to avoid areas with problematic results. The BLM has just finished testing the final trail and informed us of their results, which met public safety standards.  They continue to assess the mining contaminants over their several hundred acres in the area that drain into that creek, and continue to work closely with The Sierra Fund to ensure high quality public input into their project.

  • The creek and watershed draining the largest hydraulic mine in the United States – Malakoff Diggins, now a State Historic Park – is being assessed by a team assembled by The Sierra Fund to study ways to improve water quality.  Working closely with State Parks with funding from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and Bella Vista Foundation, we are working with some of the top scientists in the state and nation to understand the sources and sorts of sediment in the creek and to explore opportunities for improvement.

A Bridge Over Deer Creek: The new bridge over Deer Creek, opening up public access to a large parcel owned by BLM, was brought to California on a truck during the snow storms of last winter, installed in April, and had its ribbon cut in June.  Once the bridge was completed BLM began building their trail on their newly accessible land.  The Tribute Trail, which The Sierra Fund served as project and financial manager, was built by a collaboration that included American Rivers, Sierra Streams Institute, Bear Yuba Land Trust, Greater Champion Mine Neighborhood Association, Chinese Quarter Society, and the City of Nevada City.

Going Where None Have Gone Before: Over the last year The Sierra Fund has found itself in unique places where no conservation/environmental/Sierra group has ever gone before, including:

  • The National Association of Abandoned Mine Lands Programs Conference:  We were the first non-profit group to ever be part of this 35 year old major conference.  Our staff were invited to make four presentations, we had a great spot for our booth in the exhibit hall, and we met lots of potential new allies.  Some had never even heard of a “non-profit” organization before.

  • Chico Family Health Clinic:  The Sierra Fund’s new informational presentation aimed at health clinic practitioners debuted this fall in Chico to a group of nurses that had never heard anything that we told them that day.  Our presentation focuses on the threat posed for pregnant women and young children when eating certain kinds of locally caught fish (like bass).  Not one of these practitioners had ever been told anything about limiting intake of fish known to be contaminated with mercury such as swordfish and tuna – much less knew anything about the problems with local fish in the Sierra.

And One Great Party: Okay, maybe even a truly great party can’t be counted as a real impact – but it does demonstrate the effectiveness and reach of The Sierra Fund when the Governor of California shows up at our 10 Year Anniversary Event and is offered the microphone by the Secretary for Resources.  Not to mention the fact that we earned the support and respect of those that sponsored our event – including Michael and Alicia Funk, the Brissendens, Sorensen’s Resort, and more – and the many that attended our party to celebrate our successes.  And, that we know how to hold one great party!

Mission Not Yet Accomplished
Despite clear evidence of our impact, there is so much more to do.  Over the next year The Sierra Fund will continue our work along two major areas of activity:

Philanthropic Services: We will continue to provide philanthropic services to major donors who have established Donor Advised Funds at The Sierra Fund, and to organizations looking for operational support and management. Over the last 10 years these funds have given out nearly $2 million to organizations working to improve our world. In addition, we are fundraising to build a second bridge over Deer Creek that is closer to town and helps connect neighborhoods.  And, we continue to meet regularly with small organizations looking for fiduciary services.

Reclaiming the Sierra Nevada from Abandoned Mines: Our Initiative to get serious about assessing and addressing abandoned mines in the Sierra Nevada is now five years old.  The Sierra Fund has demonstrated that there is clear evidence the Sierra Nevada (CA’s watershed) is literally covered with toxins that are known to be dangerous to humans – and that people in the towns built on top of the mines and the communities downstream are being exposed to these toxins.  Advised by the experts in our Mining Work Group our priorities continue to be to protect people from further exposure to mining toxins and to clean up the abandoned mines that are the source of these toxins.

Can’t Do It Without You!
The biggest lesson that we have learned is that our success is only as great as the base of our support.  We could not do this work without the financial, technical, political and personal support provided by our major advisors and partners.  Thank you for a wonderful year of action – and looking forward to our next steps together!

And, on behalf of staff and board of The Sierra Fund, best wishes for the holidays and 2012!