Sierra Sun: Conservancy Promises Funds for Forest Health

August 26, 2004

The California Assembly's approval Wednesday of the Sierra Conservancy bill could mean healthier rivers and forests around Truckee within two years and the first united conservation plan for the Sierra Nevada, advocates say.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who pushed for a Sierra Conservancy during his campaign, is expected to sign the bill into law before Sept. 30. The conservancy will channel funding into more than 20 million acres of mountains that provide a large percentage of the state's natural resources.

“It's the first time the Sierra will have an official voice on how state money is invested in the Sierra,” said Jim Sayer, president of the Truckee-based Sierra Business Council. “Before, it was done in Sacramento.”

Research found other regions around the state such as the Pacific coast were landing tax dollars for conservation projects because they had conservancies. The Sierra was getting about 1 percent, the business council found.

“What's exciting is this is going to benefit the Sierra as a whole, but also bring funding to Truckee,” said Sayer, who added that Proposition 50 funds, water bond money that could be used for watershed restoration, will be the first finances available to the fledgling conservancy.

“The first thing [the conservancy] will do, is reconnaissance to find out what the needs are,” said Sayer.

Sierra Watch Executive Director Tom Mooers said he is hopeful that the new conservancy could aid in his group's quest to limit development in the Martis Valley.

“Having the conservancy there to streamline the effort … should make everything a little easier,” said Mooers, who hopes that the conservancy will be up and running in time to make a difference in some of the decisions on the valley.

Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, who used to represent Nevada County in the Senate, initially opposed the conservancy idea when it was proposed by Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz. But Leslie said he got involved in the plan to make sure private property rights and Sierra counties land use control were protected.

The bill also says the conservancy has no power over water rights that do not belong to it, Medefind said. Leslie also got his wish to include county supervisors on the conservancy board.

Leslie wasn't the only official concerned about aspects of the bill. U.S. Representative John Doolittle, in a visit to Truckee in early August, said a Sierra conservancy would just add another governmental layer to the process. Doolittle's district encompasses much of the central and northern Sierra.

“We don't need other entities overlayered, other than what we've got,” said Doolittle. “We don't need a conservancy and it seems to me that it can only bring mischief… we have counties; we'll funnel [funding] through the county.”

Advocates say that the conservancy will bring much greater funding, more regional cooperation, and a more unified conservation strategy to the mountain range.

The bill awaiting the governor's signature calls for a 13-member board with six Sierra supervisors, two members appointed by the legislature and five more picked by Schwarzenegger. Laird's version had no county supervisors.

Mooers said that local involvement in the conservancy's decision is very important to the future success of the state agency.

“That's good. That means they are not swooping in with a limited, distant perspective, but allowing local folks to make decisions,” said Mooers.

According to a state Senate Appropriations Committee analysis, the conservancy will need $655,000 in start-up costs and another $100,000 when a deputy attorney general is assigned to it. The annual operating cost could increase to $10 million as the conservancy grows and begins to fund grants, loans and projects, the analysis said.

As far as the effectiveness of the conservancy, Mooers said a good way to see what the Sierra Nevada Conservancy will accomplish, is to look at the other conservancies in the state.

“They've been very effective at helping preserve priority landscapes and there is no reason why California should not invest significantly in the Sierra Nevada,” said Mooers.