Study affirms mountain range’s growth trends
The Sierra Nevada’s rapid population growth is changing communities throughout the region, but the pace of change, if left unaddressed, could threaten the area’s delicate balance of life.
That’s what the Sierra Business Council’s “State of the Sierra” report concluded. Released Monday, the report assessed a decade’s worth of data taken from three editions of the group’s “Sierra Nevada Wealth Index,” a comprehensive study analyzing the financial, social and natural health of the Sierra Nevada.
“Change happens and it’s happening quickly in this region,” said Steven Poncelet, the council’s Vice President of Operations and Development on Monday at the publication’s Lake Tahoe release at Gar Woods restaurant.
The population in the Sierra Nevada increased by a third from 1990 to 2000 – not including the area’s transient visitors – the report stated. But the Sierra’s aging population is not being replenished with younger families, mostly because younger generations cannot afford the area’s high cost of living, according to the report.
“The cynics say that one of the biggest exports from the Sierra Nevada is our children,” said Poncelet.
As housing prices soar – caused in part by the high demand for second homes – earned wages lag behind. Consequently, many families and renters live in housing that is too expensive for their income, the report stated.
In 2001, only half of the Sierra Nevada’s income was earned locally. The rest came from investments, retirement or government compensation – often referred to as the “mailbox economy.” The report stressed the importance of diversifying and strengthening local economies so they can resist market shocks and offer steady, well-paid jobs.
The absence of a diverse and strong local economy leads to another undesirable fact of life in the Sierra Nevada – commuting.
With neighboring cities offering a diverse range of stable jobs with higher wages, rural residents frequently commute to nearby urban areas for work. And even many of those who work in the mountain range commute from cities because of expensive housing costs in the Sierra. In 2000, 39 percent of Placer County’s workforce commuted from another county.
Schools are another key asset to the community affected by demographic imbalances. As their population diminishes, school districts lose funding, which poses a dilemma for districts that want to improve their facilities to attract more students. For prospective families looking to settle down, the quality of local schools is a key factor in their decision, Poncelet said.
“The schools’ declining enrollment is really a trailing indicator of the state of our economy and the ability to attract and retain families in our communities with good housing and good jobs and the quality of life,” Poncelet said.
Central to the Sierra Business Council’s philosophy is the concept that natural, social and financial resources of a region are intertwined.
The cost and availability of housing in the mountain range must be addressed, said the report. A range of housing options, including workforce housing, commercial mixed-use buildings and infill development in empty or underutilized lots, can bring the cost of living down, in turn encouraging those with smaller incomes to settle down in Sierra Nevada communities.
The council also recommends that communities embrace their local heritage, capitalizing on cultural and natural resources by supporting local arts, purchasing local agriculture, preserving and enhancing historical assets, promoting tourism and enhancing the surrounding natural landscapes.
The council stressed the importance of buying locally and supporting independent businesses. If the profits stay within the community, rather than collected at a national headquarters far from the Sierra Nevada, a dollar’s value is stretched further, essentially creating jobs, promoting business and strengthening local economies.
“It’s not about badmouthing chain stores,” said the council’s Program Director for Forestry Betony Jones. “It’s about investing into what this place can be.”
Finally, the council recommended Sierra Nevada communities take a closer look at profiting off of natural resources. The potential exists for a perpetual revenue stream by sustaining and caring for the forests and the environment.
“The opportunities are enormous, like billions of dollars available for conservation of our forests,” Jones said. “It’s outside the normal realm of how we think about it.”
The carbon market, that is the business of eliminating carbon from the air to offset pollution, was worth $21.5 billion in 2006, according to the report.
Jones also said Truckee is an ideal candidate for a biomass energy plant, one that would provide a local source of energy that was efficient, secure and would provide revenue for managing the forests.
“If we’re going to figure out Truckee and Tahoe’s long-term energy supply, we have to look locally,” Jones said.
— The Sierra Sun’s David Bunker contributed to this report