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Know the West

The Sierra gets 'a pocket' for conservation funding

An idea born on the coast moves inland— but can it work in other states?


The Sierra Nevada range supplies 65 percent of California’s water and almost 50 percent of California’s timber, but from 1996 to 2001, it received only 1 percent of the state’s funding for conservation measures. Some people didn’t think that made any sense.

"We needed a pocket," says Elizabeth Martin, a former Nevada County supervisor who now works with the Sierra Fund, an environmental nonprofit. "People kept trying to put money in the Sierra (but) it kept falling through our fingers and going right back to the urban areas."

Luckily, for about 30 years, California has had a solution to this kind of problem: Independent state agencies called conservancies, which funnel state money from bonds and the general fund toward buying and protecting land. The largest of them, the Coastal Conservancy, which was created in 1976, covers the state’s 1,100-mile long coastline and has spent over $500 million on projects such as land acquisition and conservation easements.

With a network of degraded rivers, a booming population, and 50 million annual visitors, the Sierra badly needs a regionwide conservation mechanism. The idea of a Sierra Conservancy has been around since the mid-’70s, but locals could never agree on what form it should take. Seventy-two percent of the Sierra is already publicly owned, and many residents feared that if the government bought even more land, it would erode the region’s tax base.

Efforts to create a conservancy failed in 1999, 2002 and 2003. But this year, the Legislature passed a bill creating the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and on Sept. 23, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, signed it into law.

The Sierra two-step

Creating the new conservancy took some footwork. The Sierra Fund organized meetings in Los Angeles and San Francisco to attract what Martin calls "the urbans." Schwarzenegger also made the new conservancy one of his priorities.

Under increasing outside pressure, locals "saw the writing on the wall," says Shawn Garvey of the Sierra Fund. They agreed to work out a deal. Assemblyman Tim Leslie, a Republican from Tahoe City who previously opposed a conservancy, actually co-authored this year’s bill with John Laird, a Democrat from Santa Cruz. Leslie wanted to ensure that the Sierra Nevada Conservancy wasn’t just "one more tool for people in Sacramento to impose their agenda on people in the Sierra," says Jedd Medefind, Leslie’s chief of staff.

Initially, Leslie requested that counties be given veto power over conservancy proposals. But that idea met stiff resistance from legislators and environmentalists alike, so Laird and Leslie compromised by taking away the new conservancy’s power to buy land. As a result, the Sierra, unlike the state’s eight other conservancies, will not be able to own land outright. Instead, it will grant money to nonprofit, tribal or governmental agencies that do have that ability. And unlike the Coastal Conservancy, it will not have the power of eminent domain.

Locals also worried that a conservancy would bring more rules about how private land could be used. Some people associate conservancies with regulatory agencies, such as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which frightened property owners across the state when it placed a 32-month moratorium on all building projects in the Lake Tahoe basin in the early 1980s (HCN, 5/12/97). But while conservancies promote ecologically friendly development, they have no regulatory power.

In the end, Leslie’s efforts paid off; the Sierra Conservancy now enjoys widespread support from local governments. Of all of California’s conservancies, it’s one of the most heavily weighted toward local control. The board of directors is made up of six locally nominated county supervisors, from all corners of the Sierra, and seven state appointees.

Not everyone, however, thinks that’s a good idea: Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project, an anti-logging organization, fears that the timber industry will control the conservancy through the county representatives.

Sugar daddies for the New West?

Supporters hope the conservancy will revolutionize conservation projects in the Sierra. Previously, the state Resources Agency prioritized projects and allocated funds to each of the region’s 22 counties. Now, locals have a forum for regionwide projects such as thinning fire-prone stands of trees or cleaning up pollution from abandoned gold mines.

"It’s not perfect, but it’s a great step forward, considering the political dynamics of the place," says Luther Propst of the nonprofit Sonoran Institute, which helps rural communities with land-use planning. Propst calls the Sierra "the first conservancy in the Intermountain West": What began in the heavily populated coastal areas of California has now been applied inland, where ranching, mining, timber and tourist economies are the norm.

In many ways, however, California’s urban/rural divide is essential to the conservancy’s very existence, since it was urbanites who pushed it through the Legislature. And for the conservancy to work, "urban voters need to want to ship money to rural areas," says Michael Fischer, a former director of the Coastal Conservancy and an HCN board member. Californians are clearly willing to do that: From 2000 to 2002, voters approved $10.1 billion in conservation bond measures — money that the conservancies, among other state agencies, can use to fund projects and acquisitions.

But Fischer is skeptical that this model would work in other Western states, such as Montana or Wyoming, which lack the economic engine that coastal cities provide. And even California, with its $30 billion budget deficit, may not be able to fund any more conservation measures. "Having a bucket (for state funding) is one thing," says Fischer. "Having an economy where bonds pass, or an economy with enough slop in the state budget to fill the bucket, is another thing."

The author is an HCN intern.