2015-16 Annual Report

Our Mission

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy initiates, encourages, and supports efforts that improve the environmental, economic, and social well-being of the Sierra Nevada Region, its communities, and the citizens of California.

"I have watched SNC grow, and have watched our mission to support efforts that improve the environmental, economic, and social well-being of the Sierra Nevada Region come to life."

BJ Kirwan-Hanna


As an inaugural Board member of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC), I have watched SNC grow, and have watched our mission to support efforts that improve the environmental, economic, and social well-being of the Sierra Nevada Region come to life. At the end of the 2016 calendar year I will be retiring from the SNC Board, and as I prepare to pass the board chair's baton to the incomparable John Brissenden, I am reminded not only of the wonderful work that SNC has done over the last year, but over the past 12 years that I have been a member of the Board.

To date, the Board has awarded nearly $60 million in grants for projects that protect and enhance the health of California’s primary watersheds by improving forest health, remediating mercury contamination from abandoned mines, protecting critical natural resources, and reducing the risk of large, damaging wildfires. None of this work would have been possible without SNC’s incredible network of partners and their commitment to our mission.

The Region continues to fight an uphill battle against historical land management practices, a changing climate, and a lack of funding for restoration work. Over this past year, the Sierra has experienced rapid and significant change. Insects and drought killed millions of trees throughout the state. The southern Sierra Nevada was hit particularly hard. Despite these challenges, SNC and our partners continue to take steps to achieve our vision of a vibrant and healthy Sierra Nevada Region through the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program. This year we were a co-signer on a Memorandum of Understanding to support an increase in the use of fire as a beneficial forest management tool, and participated in important discussions around the role that Sierra forests play in California’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. SNC worked closely with the Governor’s Tree Mortality Task Force and others to ensure the Region’s concerns were heard, and allocated a million dollars towards tree mortality recovery and prevention through our grant program. It is this kind of leadership that I know the SNC and our partners in the Region will continue to provide in years to come.

Let me conclude by expressing deep appreciation to the SNC Board, our highly dedicated and professional staff, and our many partners who continue to help us make a difference throughout the Sierra. I am confident that the hard work of all of these individuals will continue to move the health of the Region in a positive direction.

BJ Kirwan-Hanna

Investing in Forest and Watershed Restoration


California voters passed Proposition 1, Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act, in 2014. The SNC awarded 17 grants totaling $4,698,280 during FY 2015-16. The grants furthered the purposes of the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program, a collaborative multi-agency effort to restore the health and resilience of Sierra watersheds and forests.

The remainder of the $10 million appropriated to the SNC will be awarded in FY 2016-17. Staff will develop the next set of Grant Guidelines for consideration by the SNC Board in June 2017.

“Thanks to Proposition 1 funding provided through the Sierra Nevada Conservancy grant and collaborative partnerships with the Feather River Stewardship Coalition and Plumas County Fire Safe Council, the Plumas National Forest is able to expedite critical hazardous fuel reduction and ecological restoration treatments on the Wolf and Grizzly Creek Municipal Watershed Protection Project, which includes high priority watersheds that feed into the California State Water Project.” Ryan Tompkins, U.S. Forest Service


Proposition 84, The Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2006, authorized $54 million for SNC, with nearly $50 million to be utilized for local assistance grants. During the 2015-16 Fiscal Year (FY), the SNC awarded $842,474 to the Tuolumne River Preservation Trust for the Rim Fire Restoration Project, which fulfilled the $1 million commitment made by the SNC Board for Rim Fire restoration efforts.

Though the amount of Proposition 84 bond funds available for local assistance grants has been fully awarded, there will likely be currently active projects that do not fully come to fruition or that will be completed under budget. The SNC plans to roll any unspent funds back into the grant program to be authorized for new grants or to fund the Proposition 84 monitoring program. It is anticipated that any future Proposition 84 grant awards will be for projects that meet the goals and objectives of the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program in addition to contributing to the innovative development and planning of projects that increase the pace and scale of watershed restoration.

Inyo County Lower Owens River Water Trail

In 2016, Inyo County submitted an application to the California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways grant program for the implementation of the Lower Owens River Water Trail project that is a product of the Lower Owens River Recreation Use Plan funded by the SNC. SNC staff helped with the June 2016 field trip organized for the California Boating and Waterways Commission that highlighted the location of the proposed project. With funding from the grant, the Water Trail can begin final design and implementation in 2017.


SNC grant writing workshop participants.

In addition to providing its own grant program, the SNC Funding Team helps Regional partners take advantage of other funding opportunities. Free grant writing workshops were provided in nine SNC communities, from Alturas to Kernville. Over 125 individuals representing 100+ organizations and agencies participated. These interactive, day-long workshops led participants through the steps of program development and grant writing. Participants were enthusiastic both about the subject matter and the opportunity to network with other organizations.

“I found it useful to discuss my grant idea and hear others talk through their projects.”
“I’m willing to try at what would have been previously an insurmountable obstacle.”

The Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program

"...the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program is the solution to addressing declining forest and watershed health in the Sierra Nevada."

- John S. Mills, El Dorado County and Calaveras County Water Districts


Sierra Nevada watersheds are in need of increased restoration. Without it there will be significant adverse impacts to the many benefits the watersheds provide to all of California. Wildfires are getting bigger and more intense, a changing climate with record-low snowpack is compromising the Region’s ability to filter and store water, and greenhouse gases are being released at a higher rate than previously expected -- due to drought, insect-related tree mortality, and high-intensity fire events. There is likewise broad consensus that science-based ecological restoration of Sierra Nevada watersheds must be dramatically increased in order to protect the range of benefits that the watersheds provide.

At the conclusion of the 2016 fire season, more acres had burned in a single decade along the west slope of the Sierra than in any single decade in the past, with three fire seasons remaining in the decade.

To address these challenges, the SNC and the U.S. Forest Service launched the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program (WIP), an unprecedented large-scale restoration program designed to holistically address a variety of ecosystem health issues in the Sierra Nevada.

The goals of the WIP are ambitious, but the implications of failing to act are becoming clearer as tree mortality progresses and high intensity fires continue. The WIP’s primary goal of increasing the pace and scale of watershed restoration can be achieved through the following objectives:

  • Increasing investment in ecologically sound restoration
  • Addressing key policy issues affecting restoration
  • Increasing the wood and biomass processing infrastructure required for restoration
American River Headwaters Improvement Project. The American River Conservancy believes this project could be a ‘game changer’ and lead to improvements in forest management and forest thinning prescriptions throughout watersheds on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada.
"We believe the WIP has significant merit as the forest lands of eastern California have been suffering from several decades of passive management. We are pleased to see the Sierra Nevada Conservancy take the lead in laying out a pathway that could significantly increase the pace and scale of treatment of this critical landscape [and] help contribute to the supply of water critically needed by both municipal and agricultural users.”

- Modoc County Board of Supervisors


Internally at SNC, our Proposition 84 and Proposition 1 Grant programs also play a key role in promoting the goals of the WIP by directly implementing critical watershed restoration efforts in the Sierra Nevada Region.

For example, SNC's Proposition 1 Grants program awarded $500,000 to the Upper Mokelumne River Watershed Authority for its Pumpkin Hollow Project, which is a great example of how collaborative process can create a large-landscape forest restoration plan. The use of the Master Stewardship Agreement associated with this project is also the first of its kind in the Sierra Nevada -- an agreement in which local water agencies have agreed to help with forest management on U.S. Forest Service managed lands.

SNC has awarded a number of important grants to support the development of biomass utilization facilities, which are critical to increasing the capacity of wood- and biomass-processing infrastructure. This infrastructure in turn facilitates an increase in the pace and scale of restoration. One example is the Mono County Thermal Biomass Project, which was awarded $215,000 under SNC's Proposition 84 Grants program. The goal of the project is to sustainably utilize biomass resulting from activities associated with reducing catastrophic wildfire risk (including defensible space treatments).

“[SNC’s] collective leadership in developing a comprehensive, Region-wide approach to addressing imminent needs of such an important geography of California is timely, critical and thoughtful. The Watershed Improvement Program is central to realizing increased pace and scale of Sierra Nevada ecosystem restoration.”

- California Trout

Forging Lasting Partnerships


In September 2015 the SNC was the first conservancy to adopt a Tribal Consultation Policy. The policy opened a pathway for increased tribal relations, cementing a consultation procedure, and encouraging tribal participation in SNC programs. SNC also appointed our first Tribal Liaison, Julie Griffith-Flatter, per Governor Brown's Executive Order B-10-11. The Tribal Liaison works with the tribes one-on-one, and there is a growing awareness and appreciation for SNC’s assistance. In June 2016 SNC held its first Tribal Forum and will continue to meet with tribal leaders throughout the Region.


Over the summer of 2015, the SNC worked with the U.S. Forest Service and the California Natural Resources Agency to have a portion of the Sierra Nevada Region included in the designation of the California Headwaters as a Resilient Lands and Waters (RLW) Region. The RLW Initiative works to identify regions where selected lands and waters face a wide range of climate impacts and other ecological stressors related to climate change, and where collaborative partnerships are in place that can work together to prepare for and prevent these and other threats.

While this designation did not result in new funding for the Region, it did shine a light on the importance of the Sierra to California, and supported the work we strive to accomplish through the WIP.

Northern Gateway Communities, Eastern Sierra Recreation Collaborative

Eastern Sierra Recreation Collaborative

Formed in 2014, the Eastern Sierra Recreation Collaborative (ESRC) is a grassroots effort launched by eastern Sierra recreation enthusiasts to enhance Regional recreation opportunities through focused engagement and collaboration with stakeholders and the communities of the eastern Sierra. The SNC provided staff support that served on the leadership team of the ESRC. Through the work of the ESRC, sustainable recreation was identified by the Inyo National Forest as one of three management plan revision topics.

“The ESRC fostered a community-owned discourse on sustainable recreation as part of the forest plan, in part because they created an environment that allowed various users to find solutions together. These relationships, built on trust, will garner better engagement within the community. They provided meaningful input to the draft forest plan with a lens for sustainable recreation while considering complex issues such as increased visitation, demands for a wider range of uses, and shrinking budgets.”

- Deb Schweizer, Public Affairs Officer for the Inyo National Forest

Tree mortality in Bass Lake, November 2016


On October 29, 2015, Governor Brown issued an Emergency Proclamation in response to the dramatic and extensive die-off of trees in the state. Current estimates are that as many as 102 million trees have died statewide since 2010, and 95 percent of those trees are in the Sierra Nevada Region.

With his proclamation, the Governor established the Tree Mortality Task Force (TMTF) and identified a broad range of actions to help mitigate the immediate threats to public health and safety and the environment. The Governor’s TMTF includes various agencies and organizations and the SNC has been an active participant.

The primary focus of response to the situation has been protecting the public and infrastructure from falling dead trees, determining where to put the logs and slash when trees are removed, obtaining equipment to address chipping needs, addressing transportation needs to move biomass to operating plants, and addressing challenges to retain existing processing facilities and build new ones. All affected counties are struggling with the need for funding, accelerating efforts, and providing assistance to private landowners.

"I think it's fantastic that SNC is involved in helping landowners to deal with this disaster and I'm so grateful for their assistance." - Al Anderson, Landowner

The condition of these forests will likely alter California’s economic, health, and environmental future through an increase in wildfire and corresponding carbon emissions, decreased carbon storage capacity, loss of habitat diversity, and risk to recreation infrastructure. Forest restoration is imperative to preserve the services provided by Sierra forests, and green forests must be managed to help prevent the spread of bark beetle infestations. SNC continues to encourage strengthening resistance by focusing on forest health and resiliency. In March 2016, the SNC Governing Board apportioned $1 million of Proposition 1 funds for tree mortality focused projects, and three projects were awarded for a total of $568,444 in June 2016.


Several federal and state agency officials, along with conservation and community fire protection groups, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to expand the use of fire as a restoration tool. A careful and expanded prescribed and managed fire program would lower the likelihood of large, uncontrollable fires by reducing the amount of fuel available to burn, and would limit pollution from larger wildfire events.

The SNC is a partner on this MOU and continues to support the effort. (Photos by Susie Kocher)


California’s forests represent significant carbon storage capacity, benefitting both the state and the nation through emissions mitigation. However, drought, wildfires, insects, and disease jeopardize the stability of that carbon storage capacity.

At the annual WIP Summit in 2016, Dr. Matthew Hurteau from the University of New Mexico presented his current research on forest carbon in the Sierra Nevada. His presentation sparked interest among partners at the California Natural Resources Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency, California Air Resources Board, CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, and California Conservation Corps. In June 2016, SNC and Dr. Hurteau co-hosted a field tour for interested parties at the Teakettle Experimental Forest near Shaver Lake, CA. The tour helped connect policy makers with research related to forest thinning, carbon sequestration and storage, and policies the state may want to consider when addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

Raising the Profile of the Sierra

The Great Sierra River Cleanup and Sierra Nevada Watershed Protection Week

The 7th Annual Great Sierra River Cleanup (GSRC), held on September 19, 2015, was another great success. Over 4,500 volunteers cleared over 102 tons of trash from over 325 miles of river. This event is held annually in partnership with the California Coastal Cleanup Day, and serves to promote good stewardship of our watersheds from the Sierra to the sea.

Thank you to volunteers and sponsors of the GSRC; California Coastal Commission, the California Conservation Corps, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Sierra Pacific Industries, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Mountainsmith, and Danner Boots.

The 2015 GSRC complemented efforts in Sacramento to raise awareness of the important benefits that the Sierra Nevada Region provides to all Californians. The passage of Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR) 22 was authored by Assembly Member Brian Dahle (R - Bieber). ACR 22 established the third week of September as Sierra Nevada Watershed Protection Week, bringing attention to the challenges that the Sierra Nevada Region is facing as well as highlighting the work being done to protect and restore all of the resources the Sierra provides to the state.

Almanor Basin Water Trails Map

Key individuals involved in the Almanor Basin Water Trails Map project since its inception have been members of local volunteer groups concerned about the welfare and future of the Almanor Basin, and in the promotion of tourism.

In July 2016 the Almanor Basin Water Trails map was released to the public and distributed among many of the stores and outlets in northern Plumas County. Culminating a two-year effort, this comprehensive map of water trails in the Region is intended to promote the Almanor Basin as a destination for human-powered craft and to support local businesses. It provides information about launch locations and points of interest for kayakers, canoeists, and stand-up paddlers. It also shows business locations for the navigable waters from Bucks Lake to Mountain Meadows Reservoir. The SNC provided funding to facilitate this community collaborative effort that included groups such as the Caribou Alliance, Feather River Land Trust, Mountain Meadows Conservancy, and the Lake Almanor Watershed Group.

“Since becoming aware of this project we have been watching it closely. I believe it will provide an excellent model that can be used to promote human powered watercraft sports in other areas of the state.”

- Lynn Sadler, Deputy Director of California State Parks, Division of Boating and Waterways

Looking Ahead at 2017 - A Word from Executive Officer Jim Branham

The past year has been filled with challenges. As California’s multi-year drought continued, 62 million more trees died as a result of overgrown forests, drought, and bark beetles. When we look ahead at the impacts that those dead trees will have on wildfire risk, long-term carbon storage, and the ability of our forests to absorb, store, and release water when it is needed most, the future looks rather bleak.

However, if there is a silver lining to our current condition, it is that it has spotlighted the extremely unhealthy state of many of our Sierra forests and watersheds. Partnerships are coalescing to reduce the spread of tree mortality in less-affected areas, and policy makers are beginning to understand that taking inadequate action to address the unhealthy state of many of our watersheds is a management decision, one that comes with its own set of risks and consequences.

Having the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program in place has provided an opportunity to rally around needed policy changes, investments, and efforts to increase infrastructure needed to process wood products from restoration activities. As we move into 2017, the SNC will focus on testing new ways of doing business and supporting projects that pilot game-changing strategies to increase the pace and scale of restoration work on the ground. If there is anything that we have learned from recent history, it is that business as usual won’t work in the face of a changing climate.

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