The North Yuba River Forest Partnership was forged in wildfire – a groundbreaking union of governmental and non-governmental entities

by Brian Bahouth

Yuba River water flow varies widely by season. During late summer months, languid pools of cold, clear water draw hordes of swimmers. In the spring, water flows can be torrential and dangerous between the river's steep canyon walls, which also complicate wildfire fuel reduction efforts - image - Brian Bahouth

Nine entities have formed a partnership to promote “ecologically-based, landscape-scale restoration and management of the forests within the North Yuba River watershed.” The diverse stakeholder group lays out several ambitious, long-term goals for the 275,000 acre ecosystem.

High-intensity wildfire risk reduction tops the list. The Yuba River watershed is merely 50 miles east southeast from Paradise, California and regarding vulnerability to catastrophic wildfire, the river and surrounding forest are similarly situated in many troubling ways. While keeping fire mitigation goals in the foreground, the collaborative’s ecology-based management philosophy aims to develop a resilient watershed ecology and native biodiversity that will best be able to endure the manifold effects of climate change, especially drought and shifting precipitation timing and patterns.

Decades of fire suppression and the many effects of a changing climate have resulted in forests that burn with a devastating intensity. Scientific inquiry has shown that western forests need to be thinned and that regular, low-intensity fires provide important forest ecosystem rejuvenation. Preventing smaller fires ultimately leads to bigger blazes that ruin habitat meant to be protected, destroy old-growth assets and wreak havoc on human populations. The Yuba River Forest Partnership holds that forests can be actively managed to prevent catastrophic wildfire and also ensure ecological vibrancy.

SYRCL

The South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) is based in Nevada City, California and is one of the more dynamic and effective environmental advocacy groups working in the western United States. Their annual Wild and Scenic Film Festival has truly become an international event that has shined an astoundingly bright light on the Yuba River watershed and its many distinct challenges.

SYRCL has undertaken some notable meadows restoration projects in the delicate Sierra foothills and is also active in water quality monitoring, with good reason.

Hydraulic and underground gold mining has left an ongoing toxic legacy in the 150 yearlong wake of the California Gold Rush, and the Yuba River watershed has borne and continues to bear the brunt of that pollution. The region is dotted with countless mines sites from small holes to open pit lakes and submerged underground mines a thousand feet deep.

Andrew Salmon, forest health watershed coordinator for SYRCL said in a phone interview that even though the U.S. Forest Service manages the majority of the land in the designated watershed, the group of nine entities, to include SYRCL, decided not to choose a lead agency. Each group brings its own catalog of concerns, which for Salmon is an asset.

“It’s a collaborative overall. That is really a driving force. We decided not to really have a lead agency at this point, so I think that’s the important dynamic to point out,” Salmon said.

The Yuba River and surrounding forest have a diverse set of stakeholders. Salmon was sure to emphasize the critical importance of unifying regional forest and river value systems.

“The South Yuba River Citizens League, which is the group that I’m a part of, we’re interested in protecting the Yuba River. We work throughout the entire watershed to do restoration and create resilience and resilience over time.

“The Nature Conservancy (one of the nine Partnership members) is dedicated to forests and looking at the ecology of the Sierra, working throughout the Sierra to protect forest ecology.

“The Yuba Water Agency, they need clean water. They need their water infrastructure protected.

“The Camptownville Community Partnership, they’re one of the organizations that’s attempted to start a biomass facility here in the Sierras. They want to create jobs in a healthy community and protect the people who live in the community.  The list goes on,” Salmon said.

“Sierra County, this is a lot of their land also, and they’re at the headwaters, so similar to the Camptownville Community Partnership out of Yuba County, it’s so important to make sure that these rural communities are protected.

“Then the Nisenan Tribe, this has been their lands for thousands and thousands of years, and while understanding that so much in these forests have changed over time and are no longer the forests of 200 years ago, it is particularly important to protect cultural heritage sites.”

A Sea Change in Forest Management Thinking

The U.S. Forest Service is the primary land manager in the Yuba River watershed, which is in the Tahoe National Forest. Salmon said the Forest Service and the environmental watchdog community have both learned valuable lessons in recent decades.

“The Forest Service has changed. It changed what they’re doing on the ground, it’s changed their mentality. You go back to the ‘80s where it was timber timber timber. That was their mission. They’re now a much different organization. They’re managing for so many different objectives, and those include restoration. They include biodiversity. I think they’re changing priorities.

“And then what’s seen as the environmental perspective of protecting these forests has shifted, and they are coming to a common ground and meeting point, which is really wonderful.

“We’re seeing that in the collaborative of all the ways that the different sort of belief systems are intersecting.  The scientific literature over the last 20 years has really been saying, particularly in California, that these mixed conifer forests need to be thinned. So now it’s getting those management activities to catch up with scientific literature.”

The Yuba River watershed bristles with life – ferns grow on a fallen tree – image – Brian Bahouth

For much of the 20th Century, exploitation of public lands guided land management efforts, and largely still do. As scientific and environmental awareness began to proliferate in the latter half of the century, under pressure to protect endangered species of plants and animals, forest managers began to passively manage vast areas of forest with minimal maintenance intervention.

The Yuba River Partnership in many ways supplants the traditional, mono-dimensional, utilitarian‐based forestry management model with a more inclusive system of administration that acknowledges forest and river problems are multi-faceted and highly nuanced. More, engaged stakeholders are key.

Suppression

Since its founding, the U.S Forest Service and other federal and state agencies have always promptly and courageously put out fires as soon as possible, an understandable reaction to wildfire. Of course the Forest Service and others continue to work doggedly to protect communities and property from wildfire, but science has revealed that fire plays an important and natural role in forest and ecosystem health.

Smaller, less intense fires regenerate forests. When forests are prevented from these regular, cleansing and rejuvenating understory burns, much larger and deeply intense fires ultimately diminish endangered species habitat and old growth forest assets, to say nothing of the loss of human life and property.

Following the 2007 Angora fire in the Lake Tahoe basin that burned more than 200 buildings, forest managers began raking up the forest’s clogged understory across the basin. Data clearly shows that decades of suppression and a warming climate have spurred the size, frequency and intensity of wildfires. With a clearer understanding of the role of fire in western forests, passive management techniques intended to help endangered species have been reconsidered by both forest managers and wildlife advocates.

Partnership Moving Forward – Integrating Three Models

“It’s really exciting,” Salmon said of the three models being used to guide the Partnership’s thinking. “The first is an historic range of variability, meaning, this is a tremendous study and modeling effort to look at what was here historically, what species, what densities they were in, what the forest really looked like, so we’re using that as one reference.”

The second reference study has been underway for some 15 years, the Tahoe Central Sierra Initiative.

“Their model is really looking at different scenarios. How the climate is going to play out into the future and what might those effects be. We’re looking at trends and individual pockets of weather and all the different modeling scenarios,” Salmon said.

The third guiding data source will require various and detailed scientific characterizations of the watershed, both on the ground and with remote sensing.

“The third is really what’s on the ground today and understanding all of our challenges, as well as potentially the assets that we want to protect and understanding how to balance the three different models, and also all the on-the-ground research that’s been done over the years by organizations, research institutions, and the Forest Service itself.”

A History of Conflict Redefined

Nonprofit environmental advocacy organizations and federal land management agencies have a long and adversarial history that continues today. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Reclamation are endlessly embroiled in rule-making and legal challenges regarding various permitting on public lands. The Tahoe National Forest and the US Department of Agriculture are currently being sued by a group of trail advocates over e-bikes being permitted on some hiking trails, for instance.

Salmon said the Yuba River Forest Partnership bucks historical ways of relating to land management agencies at every level of government. For Salmon, the Yuba River Partnership upends the traditional sequencing of public land management planning in areas of science, financing, implementation, and monitoring. Fact is, every aspect of the Yuba River and surrounding forest are interconnected. For Salmon, a willingness for diverse agencies to participate is essential.

“The Forest Service’s willingness … these collaboratives and partnerships, they take people who are dedicated to them, and I want to say that the Forest Service and the Yuba Water Agency, they’re organizations that really want to see this get done and have committed the resources to do it. And Eli Ilano, who’s the supervisor on the Tahoe National Forest has been a really critical part of that. I think there is truly an innovative course into this that makes us stand out, and hopefully, we will see those results on the ground.”

Rather than settling disagreements in court or public protests, mutual benefits are a positive focus for the Partnership. Salmon said all parties understand that they have to make concessions for the Partnership to work.

“It’s really exciting how the relationships are developing and finding the shared goal together. It takes concessions on both sides, and that doesn’t always mean that we’re in agreement, but it means that we’re willing not to fight on certain issues, and still protect the most important priorities.

“I just want to go back to the goal,” Salmon said with emphasis. “I want to think about all of these mutual benefits, biodiversity, critical habitat, clean, abundant water, carbon storage, fire protection, and then recreational opportunities. I think most Californians and Americans living in the west, we’ve come to this realization that things have to change, and I believe this partnership is really a way to drive that forward.”