Source: California Biodiversity Council, Winter 1994 - Vol.1 No.3

Plumas County's Economic Plight Inspires Truce; Sierra Stream Restoration Project Gets Results

Quincy 'Library Group' Leads the Way

The enterprising spirit that built a great timber industry in the water-rich forests of the western Sierra is still evident today in Plumas County, but with an uncommon twist.

Inhabitants of this scenic Feather River watershed, struggling to keep their economy afloat amid sharp declines in timber harvests, decided to end their conflict over how best to manage the forests and set about to solve the prob lems.

Joining Forces

Representatives of local government, the timber industry, and the environmen tal community joined together and formed a plan to manage the forest in a way that would sustain old-growth, provide jobs, reduce fuels and help to restore the biological diversity of a forest ecosystem pummeled by more than a century of hewing and hauling that began with the Gold Rush.

"The watershed degradation is the cumulative impact of so many activities railroading, grazing, mining, logging, road-building. The system reaches a threshold and blows apart," said Jim Wilcox, project manager in a major stream restoration program designed to help the system work as Mother Nature intended.

Once, the Sierra's natural resources were considered boundless and indestruc tible. Building the railroads, logging the forests, mining the ores, and generating hydroelectric power established the regional economy, but also took a toll upon the watershed, contributing to severe erosion along Feather River tributaries, which are crucial suppliers of California's water.

The Feather River watershed, which straddles the Sierra crest, drains into Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir of the State Water Project, and furnishes about one -third of the water from which more than 20 million Californians receive at least part of their supply. The system also provides hydroelectric power for more than 700,000 customers of the private utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Today, the resources are deemed as precious as the gold that lured settlers to the region; a fragile combination of flora and fauna not to be squandered.

Leah Wills, who directs the watershed erosion control program for the non-profit Plumas Corporation, believes that restoring the ecosystem is essential to improving the beleaguered local economy. "If the ecosystem is capital, you don't deplete it, you reinvest in it, and live off the interest - the sustainable multiple uses," said Wills, also associate director of the Indian American Valley Resource Conservation District.

Considerable anxiety about the health of the national forests pervades in the timber-dependent Sierra communities of the western Sierra. More than a half-century of fire suppression altered the natural conditions of the forest, which previously had burned about every seven years.

"Historically, the fires burned the ground, but spared many larger trees. Now, the fires kill everything," said Frank Ferguson, a Plumas National Forest planner .

Naturally occurring fire cycles, and the use of fire by Native Americans many decades ago, cleaned out the undergrowth of smaller, denser trees such as white fir, and killed insect infestations. The arrival of Smokey Bear and fire suppression, though necessary to protect communities, allowed an accumulation of undergrowth that acts as fuel.

Fires that formerly burned lower and cooler now blazed higher and hotter, roaring into the tree tops and destroying tall timber that might have survived under past fire conditions.

As worrisome as the forest's health is the regional economy, clobbered by federal budget cuts and timber harvest reductions intended to preserve the habitat of the California Spotted Owl.

Unlike its cousin, the threatened Northern Spotted Owl of the Klamath Province, the California Spotted Owl is not listed under the Endangered Species Act. Nevertheless, the bird is protected by a U.S. Forest Service decision to curtail logging of old-growth trees larger than 30 inches in diameter. The policy was intended to assure adequate California Spotted Owl habitat and avoid having to halt old-growth harvesting altogether, as occurred in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California's Klamath region.

'Library Group' Hatches Plan

Three Plumas County adversaries, frustrated by the dismal economy, dwindling timber harvest, and diminished forest health, began to talk earnestly among themselves and found they shared similar goals and interests.

"In our screaming and yelling at each other, we forgot to consider that we were here for the same reasons," said Michael Jackson, an environmental lawyer representing Friends of Plumas Wilder ness. "We all like clean air, clean water and a rural lifestyle. So we agreed to set aside what we disagree on."

Jackson, Tom Nelson of Sierra Pacific Industries and the state Board of Forestry, and Plumas County Supervisor Bill Coates formed a trio that evolved into a larger, diverse group. They met in the library at Quincy, a picturesque town of 5,000 nestled in a meadow within the Plumas National Forest. Eventually, the participants were dubbed "The Library Group."

They produced a 5-year Community Stability Proposal for forest and riparian management, which contains a short-term ecosystem management strategy for the Plumas, Lassen and portions of the Tahoe National Forests. The proposal would allow enough timber to be harvested to ensure the survival of communities like Susanville, Quincy, Greenville, Chester, Loyalton and Bieber, while also acting in concern for the environment.

"If we don't make this plan work here, many of these rural communities will turn into ghost towns," said Coates.

Forest Supervisor Wayne Thornton supports the plan and praised the coopera tive effort.

Douglas P. Wheeler, the state's Secretary for Resources, commended Jackson, Nelson and Coates while visiting stream restoration projects in Quincy last July.

"All of us have come to understand that we don't have to choose between earning a good living or protecting the environ ment. It is absolutely imperative that we integrate those objectives," Wheeler said.

The Community Stability Proposal calls for thinning dense timber stands to improve rainfall infiltration and reduce fire hazard, establishing riparian habitats, and restoring streams degraded by erosion, which often results from logging activities unmaintained roads, catastrophic fires, and major storms.

"The biodiversity we're trying to approach is the natural biodiversity ... as closely as possible mimicking nature as it was in 1890," Jackson said.

Altering of natural stream courses had turned normally wet meadows that served as flood plains into arid meadows of sagebrush. Sediment that could have replenished the soil was washed into the East Branch North Fork and carried downstream, filling PG&E's Rock Creek and Cresta reservoirs by 50 percent, clogging low-level outlet pipes through the dams, and accelerating wear on the turbines in the downstream powerhouses, which all diminish power production efficiency.

Attacking Erosion

PG&E joined other agencies in attack ing the source: upstream erosion. They formed a Coordinated Resource Manage ment (CRM) group, which is working to reduce sediment delivery to the reser voirs, and at the same time restore watershed values.

Since 1985, the CRM group has launched more than 35 riparian and wetland restoration projects and timber and rangeland studies. PG&E has invested $1 million in various ways, said Larry Harrison, PG&E's Hydro Generation Department project manager for the East Branch North Fork Feather River.

This year, the CRM group completed stream projects that restored nearly four miles of Red Clover, Wolf, Greenhorn and Haskins creeks, and protected many more miles of the streams. They took an ecosystem approach, examining each watershed and poring over old records to determine how best to reestablish the natural courses of the streams and replenish the diversity of plants and animal species.

Greenhorn Creek restoration was designed by the state Department of Water Resources, with some on-site labor performed by the Quincy High School conservation class and the Plumas Job Training Center. A half-mile segment of the stream that previously had deepened, widened and straightened was reconfig ured by the CRM to restore its meanders and flood plains to reduce flood damage. Some 2,000 plants from 20 different native species - including dogwood, willow, and alder - were positioned throughout the project area to stem erosion, provide habitat, and improve biodiversity.

Bob Farnworth, who owns a 230-acre ranch that Greenhorn Creek flows through, said the restoration passed its first test during heavy rains last winter.

"It saved me from a loss of land and it taught the students something about watershed management," Farnworth said.

Harrison says the stream restoration completed so far has corrected about 5 percent of the erosion caused by mining, grazing, timber harvesting, road-building and urbanization.

"It will take several decades to bring the system back to anything approaching the natural levels," Harrison said.

The 17 members of the CRM group are: the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers and Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, California Departments of Fish and Game, Water Resources, Forestry, and Transportation, Plumas County, Indian American Valley RCD, PG&E, Plumas Corporation, Feather River College, North Cal-Neva Resource Conservation and Deveopment Area, and Plumas Unified School District.