‘Bringing communities together’: New director of The Sierra Fund poised to promote ‘eco-resiliency’

New Sierra Fund Executive Director Joan Clayburgh stands in her Providence Mine Road office in Nevada City. Clayburgh was selected to replace Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, who stepped down from the role after her stewardship that spanned two decades.
Photo: Elias Funez

Six months after environmental activist Izzy Martin departed her executive director post at The Sierra Fund, the organization — dedicated to offering solutions to ecosystems detrimentally affected by human impact — has chosen a new leader.

Joan Clayburgh will offer oversight to The Sierra Fund for the nonprofit’s 20th anniversary, and said she hopes to help hone and promote models of advocacy and environmental repair for other communities.

“We rely on the principles of science and stewardship,” Clayburgh said. “Our solutions are (oriented) 360 degrees. They work for the environment, for the community. That’s how you actually get something done.”

Clayburgh said testing pilot ideas to identify what works, “adapting and scaling them up” are necessary to support climate healing at the current rate of its disrepair.

“What are the hurdles? That’s where the policy advocacy comes in (as) more resources are needed for the region,” Clayburgh said.

Clayburgh said The Sierra Fund’s strength is in leveraging more dollars through advocacy, but that has increased its capacity to try out science-based solutions to environmental issues affecting local watersheds — like meadow restoration.

“To me, collaborating and working together, bringing communities together is how we get through tough points ahead,” The Sierra Fund’s new Executive Director Joan Clayburgh said this week.
Photo: Elias Funez

Although excited about her new position, Clayburgh said she believes The Sierra Fund’s participation in establishing the legal boundaries to promote eco-resiliency through science is critical to interrupt at least some facets of climate change.

“I think we’ve got a tough road ahead because of some changes that are unstoppable and some changes we have to stop,” Clayburgh said. “They have to stop and they’re still possible, but they mean changes in our life. Those changes mean we need to act today, we can’t wait a decade.”

Clayburgh said cultivating and supporting the community fabric is the way the organization hopes to help public policy catch up with the proverbial people’s will to stop climate change.

“To me, collaborating and working together, bringing communities together, is how we get through tough points ahead,” Clayburgh said. “Fighting and divisiveness — some of that warring atmosphere in party politics — is just not going to serve us.”


Clayburgh said the nonpartisan backbone behind many environmental arguments is science, another realm where the advocacy organization excels.

“We have an extremely strong bench when it comes to assessing and restoring forests, meadows and rivers,” Clayburgh said. “Carrie Monohan is the doctor who leads program work, and she’s done an amazing job modeling and developing approaches (to amend different ecosystems).”

That model involves deep research and expertise, Clayburgh said.

Monohan has been with the organization since 2007, arriving in Nevada County two years before from the Bay Area to work for the Natural Heritage Institute.

“When I moved here from the Pacific Northwest, I was really surprised to see (…) really large piles of rock, streams in deep, deep channels,” Monohan said. “I didn’t understand how the Gold Rush turned over everything.”

Monohan said The Sierra Fund has provided technical research reports to a number of private and public entities, including the Nevada Irrigation District, and the group currently poised against RiseGold’s opening of the Idaho-Maryland Mine, Community Environmental Advocates.

Monohan said she understands a good deal more than she did when she first arrived.

“We were looking at that disturbed landscape that means that there is widespread mercury contamination from hard rock mines,” Monohan said, adding that the disturbed landscape affects the state of balance within and between different ecosystems.

“Very disturbed landscapes that require hands-on approaches to restoring them,” Monohan said.

Joan Clayburgh is ready to get to work as the new executive director of The Sierra Fund.
Photo: Elias Funez

Monohan said the work embraces responsible human stewardship of different ecological terrains, and noted that the work community members do to protect their watersheds, rivers and tending of controlled fires is not new.

“Here in California, we are looking at a very managed landscape where thousands of people indigenous to the area were stewarding the land prior to the Gold Rush.”


Clayburgh herself served as the Sierra Nevada Alliance executive director from 2001 to 2013. Since then, Clayburgh has continued her work in eco-resiliency as a senior leader at Western Resource Advocates and an independent consultant.

“I was hired because I’m firmly in the (area) of, ‘We are facing catastrophic change and our actions today are not just impacting future generations but next year,'” South Lake Tahoe resident Clayburgh said. “Climate change is extremely severe in the Sierra.”

Clayburgh said even if aggressive fires have not personally scorched Sierra Nevada residents’ homes, it has affected their lungs.

“You still have significant smoke impacts,” Clayburg said, “which does affect your health.”

For this reason, Clayburgh hopes to help create a more resilient forest in the coming year by partnering with several public and private organizations.

Under Martin’s leadership, The Sierra Fund studied the long-term effects of gold mining at both hydraulic and hard rock sites and provided information to locals and representatives about nature’s state.

Martin stewarded the nonprofit, whose mission intersects science and policy, for two decades before her retirement in May.

Just as Martin was making her start, The Sierra Fund board member Adrienne Alvord said she had the fortune to work with the organization’s new director in an different but peripheral realm.

“I was working as a state government employee and Joan was working on pesticides,” Alvord said. “This would have been around ’98, ’99 and 2000.”

Alvord said the nonprofit knew it could not replace Martin in the same capacity, but sought to find someone to help with outreach who was familiar with the natural resources in the area and rooted in the Sierra Nevada community.

“She is a communications specialist,” Alvord said. “A lot of the work that the organization does is replicable in many regions of the state.”

Alvord said Clayburgh’s clarity and down-to-earth nature, as well as her experience, make her an ideal candidate to communicate the nonprofit’s practical model and approach to climate change.

“She was pretty much the ideal candidate,” Alvord said.

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at


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