The region-wide removal of timber for mining operations resulted in today’s single-age stands, which are choked with underbrush and full of invasive species. Fire suppression has had devastating effects on this disturbed landscape, in many ways precluding it from recovering from the impacts of the Gold Rush. The result is an ongoing threat of severe mega fires, the likes of which the region has not seen before, including in areas that are now populated.
The forests of the Sierra Nevada were managed for thousands of years by First Nations that used prescribed fire to treat the forests and create a patchwork of biodiversity and resiliency to wildfire. Prescribed fire is a critical management technique for Sierra Nevada forests today, but much of the forest must first be treated with fuel thinning that can then be followed up with the use of frequent low-intensity fire treatments so that the conditions for high intensity catastrophic wildfire fire are abated.
Climate change has increased the risk of catastrophic wildfire which exacerbates impacts to water quality as changes in the precipitation regime results in less snow and more rain-based events that intensify runoff and sedimentation rates from blighted forests, hydraulic mine sites, and areas impacted by wildfire. The paradigm of forest health must be expanded to include mine remediation, meadow restoration and prescribed fire as key components.
The Sierra Fund’s Vision for restoring healthy forests to the Sierra Nevada
California’s headwater forests are at the nexus of many of the large-scale watershed and ecosystem health issues that have emerged prominently over the last decade but that are in fact remnant impacts of the Gold Rush. The system’s ability to withstand and recover from severe fire is directly proportional to continued coordination of efforts to conduct forest thinning, remove invasive species, and use fire on the land as a management tool.
The Sierra Fund’s role in regional forest health projects is to act as a coordination vehicle between private and public landowners so that mountain communities are addressing forest health holistically and not in a one-off, one-and-done manner. The Sierra Fund identifies planning and implementation resources at the local and regional scale and builds the capacity of landowners to pursue funding. The Sierra Fund offers technical support to projects underway, bringing with it a deep expertise around mine-impacted landscapes so that fuels reduction projects can be multi-benefit and leverage best available technologies.
Key to this approach is engaging the First Nations of the Sierra, on whose ancestral homelands projects are planned, so that meaningful actions that work to restore ecosystem resiliency are executed in tandem with efforts to support community resiliency.
Multi-Benefit Projects: Fuels Reduction and Mine Remediation
Legacy mines in the Sierra are a complicating factor for forest management. During hydraulic mining, hilltops were excavated to recover gold, resulting in denuded landscapes littered with land scars that deliver unprecedented amounts of sediment to streams and rivers.
Hydraulic mine sites are scattered across the hillsides of the Yuba Bear, and American River watersheds. These mine sites are largely bereft of soil and vegetation and therefore are hotspots for mercury and sediment discharge during rain events.
Integrated landscape management is an important opportunity for ecosystem restoration in the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Fund is assisting the Tahoe National Forest as they plan large scale fuel treatment projects to address hydraulic mine sites as priority locations. Fuels treatment in these areas will help reduce the sediment and mercury delivery to downstream water ways following severe burn.
Forest Resilience Bond Model
The Sierra Fund is working with project partners at the Yuba Water Agency and Blue Forest Conservation to expand and deepen the Forest Resilience Bond model to include meadow restoration and hydraulic mine remediation and to develop comprehensive landscape-scale projects in the Yuba River Watershed with a model applicable Sierra-wide. The Forest Resilience Bond model is a financial tool that enables private investment in land enhancements. The model promises to accelerate the pace and scale at which critical work to restore the health and functioning of forested landscapes is undertaken. Integrating mine remediation and meadow restoration efforts with forest health ensures that watershed projects attain the greatest climate resiliency potential.
Nevada City Slivers Project
The Sierra Fund is supporting Nevada City in its process to create a list of its “City Slivers”, small bits of land in town that require maintenance in order to meet fire-safe standards. The Nevada City Sliver Project goals include: prioritizing the City Slivers for fuels treatment; getting the properties professionally treated; and having follow up maintenance be a part of an “Adopt-a-Sliver” program. Thus far, the City has identified four properties that are ready for maintenance and for which community members have indicated that they would like to maintain the property following a professional treatment. This project improves fire resilience for the 3,142 residents of Nevada City living in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).