A decade ago, a team of federal scientists and researchers unveiled the most comprehensive report card ever compiled on the ecological health of the sprawling Sierra Nevada region. At about the same time, the Sierra Business Council released a landmark survey of its own, the first Sierra Nevada Wealth Index, which painted a comprehensive portrait of the communities scattered up and down the mountain range. The prognosis they delivered was not a hopeful one.

The Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project report — 2,000 pages of information about the environment, society and economy of the region, assembled over two and a half years by more than 120 researchers at a cost to the federal government of $6.4 million — identified disturbing trends: increasing fire risk, diminishing forest and woodland, worsening air and water quality. The Sierra Business Council’s index added a human dimension to the bad news: rapid population growth, inadequate planning and public services, and widespread poverty and illiteracy.

Over the next 10 years, proposals to address some of those issues in a coordinated, regional fashion bubbled up periodically. The most ambitious of those, creation of a state agency charged with promoting the well-being of the Sierra Nevada region, reached a milestone this summer when that agency adopted a strategic plan and set of project goals to guide its work over the next five years.

As is to be expected from a document that took nearly two years to produce and involved comments and contributions collected from hundreds of individuals during public meetings up and down the state, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s new strategic plan is long on lofty generalities and short on specifics. And those qualities hint at the very real challenges facing the conservancy, which has been assigned to coordinate a daunting array of efforts across a region united more by wishful thinking and symbolism than by common interests, challenges and needs.

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy was established two years ago by legislation authored by Assemblymen John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) and Tim Leslie (R-Roseville) (seeCP&DR, September 2004). Upon signing the bill, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared it “a major milestone” that would ensure that “our children and grandchildren, visitors from far and wide, will see and enjoy the same Sierra Nevada that we value so much today.”

It became the ninth state conservancy, joining a list that already included the Baldwin Hills, California Tahoe, Coachella Valley Mountains, San Diego River, San Gabriel & Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains, San Joaquin River, Santa Monica Mountains, and State Coastal conservancies.

The conservancies are independent government agencies that exist primarily to funnel money from bonds, the state’s general fund and private contributions toward acquisition and protection of land for wildlife habitat, recreation, open space and resource conservation. They are overseen by boards appointed by state and local lawmakers and department heads.

For the most part, their authority is focused on well-defined and cohesive geographical units: a 22-mile stretch of the San Joaquin River, for example, or the watershed of the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy, however, is a creature of decidedly different aspirations and character.

The conservancy’s territory encompasses a quarter of the state — 25 million acres — and a staggering array of ecosystems, landforms and communities, from crown-jewel national parks to desolate lava beds, from alpine streams and glaciers to low-elevation dams and reservoirs, from decrepit logging towns and high-desert ranching communities to Mother Lode tourist traps, foothill retirement havens and lakeside playgrounds for wealthy vacation-home owners.

Even the name is a bit misleading. The northern part of the conservancy’s territory is not technically part of the Sierra Nevada at all; the section from Lassen Peak north lies in the Cascades and the Modoc Plateau. And on the east, the boundary runs along the crest of the White-Inyo range, which is on the Nevada border and is separated from the Sierra by the Owens Valley and Mono Basin.

The region is united mostly by its significance to the rest of the state. Only about 640,000 people live within its boundaries (although that figure is expected to triple by 2040), but the Sierra Nevada produces 65% of California’s water supply, and without it, there would be no Los Angeles, no Bay Area, no Central Valley farming empire. The range also provides about half the state’s timber. And the Sierra contains the natural icons that define California in the popular imagination: Yosemite’s waterfalls, Sequoia’s giant trees, the blue gem that is Lake Tahoe (although that watershed has its own conservancy).

Trying to develop a coordinated approach to economic development, environmental protection and land conservation over such a large and diverse landscape will not be easy. Yet that is the challenge assigned to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, which is directed by its establishing legislation to expand recreation and tourism, protect natural and cultural resources, preserve farms and ranches, reduce fire risk, protect air and water quality, and somehow ensure that economic development and environmental protection will not conflict with each other. And it must do this without legal authority to hold title to land, condemn property, regulate land use or interfere with existing water rights.

It does have some money, although not a lot: The state budget Schwarzenegger signed June 30 includes $3.9 million for the conservancy’s work and staffing.

"The final draft of the strategic plan includes a clear statement about the important role the conservancy must play in protecting the natural resources of the Sierra, and reflects a grassroots democratic philosophy of working across a broad range of constituents and interests," said Elizabeth Martin, a former Nevada County supervisor and chief executive officer of The Sierra Fund. "We are proud of the work that the conservancy has done on this document.”

The strategic plan approved by the conservancy’s board on July 20 fleshes out the legislative goals a bit and introduces a lot of talk about collaboration, cooperation and partnerships. That’s to be expected, given the jurisdictional jigsaw puzzle within the conservancy’s area of authority: 20 incorporated cities, 22 counties, 40 special districts and 212 communities, along with Native American tribes, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

This initial plan also focuses mainly on acquiring and disseminating information, and finding out what communities in the conservancy planning area want to know so they can plan better.

Sierra Nevada Conservancy strategic plan:
Jim Branham, Sierra Nevada conservancy, (530) 823-4672.
Elizabeth Martin, The Sierra Fund, (530) 265-8454, ext. 11.