10,000-acre forest deal near Lake Tahoe to aid in drought studies | TahoeDailyTribune.com

10,000-acre forest deal near Lake Tahoe to aid in drought studies

Josh Staab
jstaab@sierrasun.com

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Researchers are hoping the preservation of 10,000 acres of watershed land west of Lake Tahoe can help provide solutions to California's persisting drought and wildfire epidemic.

The Nature Conservancy — an environmental group that aims to prove that thinning areas of the Tahoe National Forest could enhance old forest habitats and improve the quality of water flowing from higher headwaters downstream — partnered with the American River Conservancy and Northern Sierra Partnership to buy the land for $10.1 million.

Escrow closed Aug. 5 on the deal with former land-owner Simorg West Forests, a timber company based in Atlanta.

In all, the groups have raised $14.5 million for the acquisition, stewardship endowment, and restoration of the land located about 10 miles west of Lake Tahoe on the western side of Granite Chief in Placer County, near the headwaters of the North and Middle forks of the American River.

The swath of land is one of the largest pieces of unprotected land that remains south of Donner Summit.

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There, researchers plan to measure snowpack, soil moisture, fluctuations in temperature and humidity levels at the high elevation headwaters, said Roger Bales, a professor of engineering at University of California, Merced.

Currently, Bales' work focuses on California's efforts to implement policies that adapt the state's water supplies, ecosystems and economy to the impacts of climate warming.

Bales is also the director of Sierra Nevada Research Institute. He will be working with the Nature Conservancy, studying the scientific impacts of the project's thinning efforts.

"In wet years, you would expect to have more snow on the ground," Bales said. "The snow retained would last longer into the spring and have more water entering the streams, climate pending."

A LONG-TERM EFFORT

While Bales believes thinning prescriptions would reduce fire risk by removing what he estimates will be nearly half of the biomass within the research area, it would maintain the natural order of wildlife habitats by identifying areas denser in vegetation and vice/versa.

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READ MORE: 36,000 Lake Tahoe-area trees are dead or dying as California's drought persists.

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"We're talking about a multi-decade effect, possibly a 30-year investment," he said.

In similar areas where research of this nature is happening, Bales said change could occur on the order of a 6 percent to 10 percent increase in water runoff downstream.

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READ MORE: High-elevation fires are prompting change in Sierra Nevada forest management, a new study reports.

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However, some critics warn that such thinning measures can result in increased competition for water and light among remaining trees, and a need for more frequent thinning to continuously suppress the threat of wildfires.

Jens Stevens, a researcher with the John Muir Institute of the Environment with the University of California, Davis, believes given the Sierra Nevada's history of logging, the decision on whether or not to thin will be partially informed by what's on the ground already, and the decision to purchase this particular swath of land could have competing objectives.

"It's a very strategic purchase…" Stevens said.

Due to its abundance of historically fire-resistant red firs, thinning the area for water flow research could dovetail well with the growing scientific opinion that low intensity wildfires can be used as a tool for not only forest thinning but also nurturing fire resiliency.

"One potential of the location could lend itself well to putting some fire on the ground," Stevens said. "I think this forest type is not as highly departed from what you would want the natural fire regime to be."

CLIMATE CHANGE AND WILDFIRE

As for the purchase, more than 2,300 private donors lent support, helping raise $9.4 million.

The state of California also contributed $5 million through donations from the Wildlife Conservation Board and $1.5 million from the California Natural Resources Agency.

While the Nature Conservancy will lead management and research of the project, the American River Conservancy will own the land.

"With climate change accelerating the risk of catastrophic fire, our research will be aimed to test techniques to protect us from megafires, improve watershed health, and reduce drought impacts for forests and people who rely on them," said Ed Smith, an ecologist with the Nature Conservancy.

Visit http://bit.ly/1nwRcLB to read more about the land deal.

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