Two reports set the stage for Sierra Nevada's future

  • Wild iris in the Sierra Nevada's Owens Valley

    Jim Stimson Photography
  The Sierra Nevada is a patchwork of dwindling old growth, imperiled species and degraded lakes, streams and rivers. But the seedbeds of its salvation are still intact, according to two reports released this summer, one by a group of scientists, the other by a regional business council.


Both conclude there are many reasons for hope in the 400-mile-long mountainous backbone of California that John Muir called the "range of light."


"Most of the problems of the Sierra can be solved," concludes the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project Report. "Reduction of damaging air pollution could occur in a matter of days. But restoration of complex forest structure might take a century, and recovery of degraded river channels even longer."


The Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Report, a $6.5 million study commissioned by Congress in 1993, is the most comprehensive ever conducted. More than 100 scientists worked on it for three years, and their conclusions will eventually run to more than 3,000 pages when released later this year.


Among the scientists' recommendations are stopping the stocking of alpine lakes with trout that have pushed the mountain yellow-legged frog to the brink of extinction, protecting 1,500-acre pockets of old-growth forest in every watershed in the range, making modest changes in the management of river flows to help restore riparian ecosystems, and establishing an economic mechanism for reinvesting in the region.


The value of commodities taken from the Sierra, mainly water and timber, "is enormous at $2.2 billion," says Don Erman, a University of California biology professor and leader of the ecosystem science team. "But reinvestment is vanishingly small" at less than 2 percent. "Put in a business sense," Erman says, "you can't run a plant without making reinvestment. The same is true of an ecosystem." His team suggests that a tax or fee on water exports to the rest of California be used to fund watershed restoration in the Sierra.


A second report, the 48-page Sierra Nevada Wealth Index, is designed to complement the environmental study and provide a periodic checkup of the region's environmental, economic and social well-being. It was produced at a cost of $40,000 by the Sierra Business Council, a group of 388 businesses ranging from small retail stores and bed-and-breakfast establishments to timber companies and Lake Tahoe casinos. The report tracks 42 indicators of the region's wealth, ranging from water quality to employment and school test scores. The indicators will be updated periodically and every seven years the report will be revised.


Both studies have set the stage for a vigorous debate about the region's future.


"The thing I'm most concerned about is population growth," says Lucy Blake, executive director of the Sierra Business Council. "Are we going to grow in a way that's sensitive to natural systems or continue to pretend they don't exist? There is almost no understanding of natural resources and conservation in county plans. We need leadership to get these concerns integrated into county planning."


The 48-page Sierra Nevada Wealth Index is available for $11 from the Sierra Business Council, P.O. Box 2428, Truckee, CA 96160, e-mail: SBC@sierra.net, (916/582-4800). An order form for the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project Report, in its various printed forms, from a 22-page executive summary to the entire report at more than 3,000 pages, is available from the Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, 1072 Academic Surge, University of California, Davis, CA 95616-8750, e-mail: snep@ceres.ca.gov, or leave a message with your name, address and fax number at 916/752-7992. The SNEP report is gradually being put online at http://www.ceres.ca.gov/snep.


* Jon Christensen