A hot saw is buzzing through a crowded stand of saplings, sending snow and pine-scented chips into the Sierra Nevada morning near the Yuba River's north fork. On a nearby south-facing slope, planters are placing seedlings in yawning gaps in the forest cover.
Fifty miles away, just south of the mountain town of Truckee, hand crews are piling brush and small trees to prepare a plot for returning low-intensity fire to the landscape. And in a meeting room somewhere on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, homeowners, ski resort owners and agency officials are wrapping a two-year conversation into a plan designed to protect 60,000 acres of public and private land against drought, climate change and extreme fire.
All this hustle and bustle in the Tahoe region stems from a nearly $13 million grant awarded to the National Forest Foundation. The funding, from the California Climate Investment Forest Health program, is the largest NFF has ever received, according to the organization’s President and CEO Mary Mitsos. An additional $5.2 million in matching funds from a variety of private and public sources brings the total project value to roughly $18 million, she said.
The money is allowing federal and state land managers to accomplish much needed forest health projects. Working across 10,173 acres of federal lands and 1,360 acres of state and private lands, plans include thinning and reducing fuels on roughly 7,900 acres; igniting 3,600 acres in prescribed fires; and replanting around 240 acres. The funding has also fostered a dizzying diversity of partnerships that include local fire departments, recreation groups, conservation organizations, water agencies and financial entrepreneurs.
Cooperation and Evolution
At a time when climate change is forcing land managers to think more critically about forest resilience and to act ever more quickly, these projects and partnerships represent an evolution in the way work is getting done on the ground, explained Eli Ilano, Tahoe National Forest Supervisor.
“Cooperating with other agencies is essentially the best way to be successful—and maybe the only way to be successful in today's world."
One of the largest projects the NFF is coordinating involves 5,690 acres in Sierra County. Part of the 14,545-acre Yuba project on federal land, the work combines traditional restoration practices, such as removing forest fuels and restoring meadows, with new approaches to forest health. One involves harvesting timber and investing the revenue back into projects that enhance forest health.
On a snowy morning in early October, logs in tidy two-story-high stacks are waiting to be hauled to Weaverville, where Trinity River Lumber will mill them into construction materials. This is NFF's first venture into the world of commercial timber sales, noted Matt Millar, NFF's Tahoe-area Program Manager. The NFF is interested in all approaches to restoring forests; creating a vibrant forest community sometimes requires removing some materials with commercial value, he said: "This is a good way for us to see how harvesting fits within our goals as an organization."
Like most NFF projects, this one works toward forest restoration in several ways. In addition to the modest economic benefits from selling logs, crews removed some trees to improve the habitat for aspens, which were crowded out by the pine overstory. The result is an expanse of widely spaced trees sloping uphill to meet a dense, still crowded stand of Jeffrey pines. Unlike typical Forest Service sales, the revenue from sale of around 4.1 million board feet of lumber will be reinvested back into the Yuba project to support ongoing restoration work. "That helps us keep the timber revenue we generate in the same area for future work," said Millar.
Expanding the Workforce and Leveraging Investments
The NFF is tackling projects that have been planned by the Forest Service but were waiting for implementation. Once Tahoe National Forest officials identify the work to be done – a prescribed burn, for example – the NFF has funding to write the burn plan and hire a crew to cut brush along a perimeter line. Because Forest Service personnel are not always on hand when conditions are appropriate for burning, the NFF may also hire a team to ignite and manage it, explained Ilano.
"Working with NFF just expands the workforce available and allows us to get so much more work done on the ground," he said.
In this fire-prone area, reducing forest fuels is a key goal across many of the NFF’s projects. Fuels reduction projects are expensive, so the NFF teamed up with a local co-generation facility that utilizes the culled trees—three to ten inches in diameter and too small to be viable as lumber—to create electricity. The Big Jack East project near Truckee is expected to yield nearly 5,000 tons of biomass, Millar said.
In addition to leveraging commercial timber harvests and biomass sales to support more meadow restoration and fuels reduction, the NFF’s projects are a unique combination of private and public monies. One of the beneficiaries of the Yuba project is Yuba Water Agency, which provides drinking water and flood protection to local residents. Blue Forest Conservation, an innovative financial startup, convinced Yuba officials that avoiding intense wildfires and improving watershed health would be in their long-term interest. Yuba Water invested $1.5 million in the Tahoe National Forest projects. Blue Forest funneled that money through NFF, which hired the contractors. The water agency will be repaid for its investment over the next several years, Ilano said.
A Collaborative Approach
One of the most ambitious projects, still in the planning stages, is Lake Tahoe West, a comprehensive, collaborative effort to address looming pressures on the landscape. Since 2016, agencies that manage natural resources in the Tahoe Basin have been meeting with recreation, homeowner, conservation, fire protection, local business and government leaders to develop a strategy for landscape restoration and resilience that addresses everything from community safety to how fires move across landscapes. The group is working with a science team to understand how the region is likely to change over time in response to climate change and management.
"Forest managers have known they need to be thinking about the larger landscape and how it is responding to climate change, wildfire risk, drought and insect outbreak."
The project encompasses a total of 60,000 acres from the west shore of Lake Tahoe to the Sierra Nevada peaks in Granite Chief and Desolation Wilderness Areas. Home to 65,000 people, the Lake Tahoe area attracts over 6.4 million visitors to swim, kayak, ski and hike in one of the nation's most iconic panoramas. Forest managers have known they need to be thinking about the larger landscape and how it is responding to climate change, wildfire risk, drought and insect outbreak, said Sarah Di Vittorio, the NFF's Northern California Program Manager. She is coordinating Lake Tahoe West using a $1.2 million grant from California Tahoe Conservancy and $400,000 in Forest Service funds. The partners have completed a Landscape Resilience Assessment and Restoration Strategy, and have launched a new phase pinpointing specific projects for specific locations.
Di Vittorio is also working with Truckee Trails Foundation to build and enhance several multiple-use trails in the Truckee area using funding from donors that include REI Co-op Mastercard cardholders. Along with supporting the regional recreation-based economy, they protect streams and wildlife impacted by user-created trails.
Despite all of the benefits of trails, habitat restoration and reintroducing fire, the projects likely to have the most immediate impact on Tahoe residents are those that reduce fuels in their backyards. At a cul de sac near Truckee circled by carefully tended homes, Jeff Dowling studied the half-grown conifers, sage and bitter brush that litter the land as it slopes away from the 1,400-house development. Dowling, a professional forester recently retired from CalFire, envisions fire racing uphill right toward the houses. Next spring, the Truckee Fire Protection
District plans to use funds provided by the NFF to remove these ground fuels, making the Glenshire-Brockway communal recreation area more resilient to wildfire.
"This isn't a panacea. It won't get you out of jail free, but it's a start," Dowling said.
None of the NFF projects is going to restore the Tahoe region’s forests individually. Together, however, they represent a decisive start toward a goal embraced by land managers, business and homeowners alike: healthy forests.
About the Author
Jane Braxton Little, an independent journalist based in California's northern Sierra Nevada, writes about science and natural resources for publications that include Scientific American, National Geographic, Discover, Yale E-360 and Audubon. This is her second piece for Your National Forests. Find her at janebraxtonlittle.com and @JBraxtonLittle.