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French Meadows Forest Restoration Project an innovative partnership addressing forest health

As California grapples with increasing wildfire risk, a unique, collaborative forest health project has emerged in the Sierra that could soon be the model for how large-scale forest health projects are completed.

The French Meadows Forest Restoration Project covers 22,000 acres of public land around French Meadows Reservoir west of Lake Tahoe and is a public-private partnership of seven regional partners. On the adjacent private land, the American River Conservancy has funded its own treatment of 445 acres, as a collaborative aspect of the all-lands approach.

The project involves clearing underbrush, thinning smaller trees, removing biomass to renewable energy facilities, reforestation and restoring meadows. The goals are to promote forest resilience to stressors such as wildfire, insect and disease outbreaks and climate change - protecting a major source of Placer’s and California’s water supply, and helping restore habitat for fish and wildlife.

Participants hope this project will be used as a future example for increasing the pace and scale of ecologically-based forest management and fuels reduction throughout the Sierra Nevada.

Hotter and drier conditions, decades of fire suppression and past logging practices have combined to make California’s forests more vulnerable to high-severity wildfire. Massive tree die-offs due to years of drought and widespread insect infestations, year-round fire weather conditions and overgrown young-growth forests have all combined to create severe fire risks, particularly in the Sierra.

With limited U.S. Forest Service resources already engaged on other forest resiliency projects in the American River watershed, a diverse group of partners worked to design, manage and fund the project in close partnership with the Forest Service, which has responsibility for the land the project will address.

“Forest health and wildfire prevention are critical to our region,” said District 5 Supervisor Cindy Gustafson. “This innovative partnership will not only ensure the long-term sustainability of French Meadows, but will serve as a model for future projects seeking to ensure the resiliency of our forestland.”

Protecting this reservoir benefits not just Placer County’s but all of California’s water supply. Most of the water on which Californians depend originates in mountain headwaters. This water serves local residents but also offers beneficial uses throughout the state - municipal and agricultural use, ecological flows in the river system and California Bay Delta, and recreational and fisheries values.

Large high-severity forest fires release hundreds of thousands of tons of eroded soil into mountain water courses that serve these many uses downstream.

This eroded soil, plus tons of ash and burned vegetation, reduces water quality, clogs infrastructure, collapses roads and fouls habitats. These effects can last for many years after the fire, adding costs and reducing reliability for all users downstream.

The erosion of forest soil also reduces the thickness of an absorptive blanket, which stores water derived from precipitation, releasing it slowly into streams and vegetation during the dry months. Without soil, the water system would produce more floods downstream and store less moisture for slow release throughout the year. Soils take thousands of years to form; one fire can erode tons in one rainstorm.

Protecting headwaters from large high-severity fires serves to maintain a reliable high-quality water supply for California’s integrated water systems.

“The 2014 King Fire [in El Dorado County] was a reminder of the devastating effect wildfires have on water supply and water quality, said PCWA General Manager Einar Maisch. “The massive erosion it caused degraded streams and damaged water, power, and transportation infrastructure, leading to millions of dollars of on-going clean-up costs for our ratepayers and the general public. The state’s long-term water security depends on healthy forests and watersheds.”

The French Meadows project also includes innovative research on the link between healthy forested watersheds and water supply, led by the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.

“Researchers are developing information on the water-related benefits of forest treatments, which together with the reduced wildfire risk from forest thinning, is essential for developing local partnerships for treatment programs across Sierra Nevada forests," said Roger Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.

Placer County has the lead on hiring and overseeing contractors to execute tree removal, forest thinning and biomass removal. The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Service are working together to implement a prescribed burn plan to help with clearing overgrown underbrush.

Funding was secured through a variety of sources including Placer County and Placer County Water Agency through the Middle Fork Project, the Forest Service, state grant funding from CAL FIRE and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, as well as private donors through the Nature Conservancy. The Middle Fork Project is a multi-purpose water supply and hydro-generation project designed to conserve and control waters of the Middle Fork American River, the Rubicon River and several associated tributary streams.

Helping offset the cost of the project, the timber harvested by county contractors will be was sold to Sierra Pacific Industries, which owns and operates the only two mills that are within close driving distance of the project. Larger logs will be brought to the Lincoln mill and smaller logs will be brought to Oroville to be developed into lumber products. Material that can’t be used for lumber will be sold to the Rio Bravo biomass energy facility in Rocklin and will be used to create renewable electricity for the region.

Vegetation removal work on this project started in June 2019 and went through November. Work will start again in summer 2020.

Story created by Stephanie Herrera, Placer County Communications and Public Affairs Office

***Photos and video by the Placer County Water Agency***