Integrated Pilot Projects and Scaling Up Solutions for Healthy Forests and Watersheds

To address legacy impacts and catastrophic climate changes to Sierra watersheds, including forests and meadows, we plan and implement integrated, multi-benefit pilot projects to maximize watershed resiliency.

Integrated forest health projects include:

  • Thinning Forests for Fuel Reduction: reduces wildfire-risk and promotes forest structure supporting diverse plants and animals.
  • Returning Beneficial Fire: creates wildfire resilient lands and healthier landscapes.
  • Restoring Meadows: improves floodplain function, increases carbon storage potential, and provides essential habitat and refugia for wildlife.
  • Restoring Hydraulic Mine Lands: reduces downstream sediment delivery to benefit water supply infrastructure, increases carbon storage potential, improves soil structure, and promotes the growth of healthy vegetation.
  • Restoring Watersheds: improves river and stream health supporting biodiversity and the state’s water supply.
  • Promoting Native Species: supports biodiversity, eradicates invasives, and protects critically important species, both flora and fauna.
  • Supporting Small Wood Utilization: turns small-diameter trees removed in fuel reduction projects into useful products.

What’s Innovative About this Approach?

We must address forest health by taking a more integrated approach to managing our forests that includes restoring a healthy fire regime and healthy soils, not just fuel reduction.

This work is best when it centers tribal knowledge and supports tribally managed workforces. It’s also important to support community-scale efforts whenever possible to better sustain local economies. Finally, The Sierra Fund prioritizes “process-based restoration” that emphasizes working with natural systems to recover ecological health and re-establish the processes that sustain ecosystems. This restoration approach involves ongoing stewardship, is low-risk, and uses low-cost techniques while minimizing heavy machinery and allowing natural biodiversity and ecosystem resiliency to emerge.

What’s innovative about this work is the integration of fuel reduction with the restoration of meadows, mines, soils, and watersheds. If you think of fuel reduction as one treatment like getting your hair cut – integrated forest health is like addressing diet, sleep, and exercise to restore a more robust definition of health beyond the haircut.

The Sierra Fund not only implements these projects, but documents, when possible, the economic benefits and monitors ecosystem responses. This information helps with the next imperative phase of the work which is scaling up these efforts across the region.

Integrated Forest Health Project Restores Hydraulic Mine Site

The Sierra Fund has a successful pilot project underway demonstrating how to combine forest fuel treatment with restoring an abandoned hydraulic mine site and implementing process-based watershed restoration principles. Grizzly Creek hydraulic mine site is in the Tahoe National Forest, in the upper Yuba watershed. Phase one restoration has been completed with The Sierra Fund thinning fuel on the site and using material from fuel load reduction as part of soil amendments and in the construction of structures that capture sediment and reduce erosion. The structures include, Post-Assisted Log Structures (PALS), Zuni Bowls, and One-Rock Dams (ORDs).  TSF also applied biochar on the mine site to improve soil health, soil structure, and act as a passive filter to improve the water quality in surface runoff. Our staff scientists first in the lab and then on the site, created test plots and conducted monitoring to measure the effects of the biochar application. They found that biochar applications resulted in significant improvement in surface runoff water quality, reducing suspended sediment in runoff and reducing particulate-bound metals, including mercury, in runoff. Such treatments improve water quality, improve downstream habitat, and have the added benefit of sequestering carbon in soils with the use of biochar for increased climate resiliency. Biochar applications and forest thinning were conducted by Mooretown Rancheria, supporting a Tribal-owned business. This is the first project of its kind combining hydraulic mine restoration, fuel load reduction, and other watershed restoration improvements.

More Innovative Pilot Projects Launching

We are partnering in 2024 and beyond with Yuba Water Agency, US Endowment, Tahoe National Forest, Blue Forest, and Mooretown Rancheria to expand abandoned hydraulic mine restoration around the region. The Sierra Fund’s long-term goal is to restore over 150 sites in the central Sierra. In pursuit of this goal, The Sierra Fund is curating a prioritized list of hydraulic mines that can be restored within Yuba River watersheds. We secured California state funding with partners we collaborate with at the Cosumnes American Bear and Yuba Integrated Regional Water Management group to do community outreach and advance permitting and planning to restore more sites. We also have support from the Yuba Water Agency to complete restoration on one more site and create plans for three more sites.

We will be doing community outreach in Sierra City and Downieville areas to learn more about their interests and plans for fuel load reduction to protect their communities from Wildfire. Historic gold mining communities in the Sierra are often surrounded by many abandoned hydraulic mines. Because hydraulic mine sites require additional cultural surveys and planning efforts – these acres often get excluded from fuel reduction treatment plans. The Sierra Fund is working to help communities know that these acres don’t need to remain untreated and that by combining hydraulic mine restoration with fuels treatment you can reduce the risk of wildfire to the community. If the community is interested, The Sierra Fund will work to help them accomplish the combined hydraulic mine restoration/fuels treatment work.

Partnering with Nevada City Nisenan on a Land Back and Restoration Project

As The Sierra Fund engaged in deeper partnership with the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe and their supporting nonprofit the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project (CHIRP), it became apparent that land back was a foundational need of the Tribal community. TSF wrote grants in partnership with CHIRP and helped them acquire 32-acres of ancestral homeland along Deer Creek, funded by a grant from the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA). Then CHIRP and The Sierra Fund secured two additional grants (from CNRA and the Department of Water Resources through Mountain County Funding Area/Sierra Institute) and are working on the following activities together:

  • Building a public trail across the property, in partnership with the Bear Yuba Land Trust to join two spurs of the Nevada City community Deer Creek Tribute Trail (DCTT) system.
  • Building fences to keep people out of culturally important sites and mining contaminated “toxic hot spots” from the old Champion Mine.
  • Installing two interpretive trail signs highlighting Nisenan stewardship of ancestral lands.
  • Removing invasive species.
  • Thinning the forest to reduce wildfire severity/risk.