Reinvestment in natural resources a strategy for success

John Sheehan
Leslie Mink
Plumas Corporation

People have been trying to wrest a living from the nooks and crannies of Plumas County since the last ice age. The Maidu (and the Washoe and Paiute summer visitors) focused on native and cultivated plants, and fish and game. The miners sought gold. The railroaders sought logs out of the backcountry. The ranchers raised crops and livestock on the 250,000 acres of rich meadows. Overwhelming all was the extent of the forest, the bounty of the waters, the beautiful valleys, and a climate that winnows out the weak.

Even today, the logging and ranching industries are the export backbone of this economy. The local strategy for the last generation has been to try to improve these resources and maintain their uses for the benefits to the country, community and nature. While the economy must change with changing times, a primary economic focus at Plumas Corporation has been reinvestment in our natural resources as a time- tested strategy for long-term success.

The natural resource strategy is not very complicated in the telling. There are two objectives. The first part is to thin the forest and restore more open crown conditions, thus reducing the damaging effects of wildfires, keeping people employed, and providing habitat for a wider diversity of wildlife. The second piece is to restore the streams and meadows to improve the water resource.

These twin objectives were articulated in the 1993 Quincy Library Group “Community Stability Proposal” (QLG). The forestry goal was an “all-age, multi-story, fire-resistant forest approximating pre-settlement conditions.” The water goal was to implement a “stream restoration program to protect fisheries and watershed health.” The ultimate benefit of this resource strategy is to create a biologically sustainable forest as well as a stable community. In the face of market instabilities, and forestry lawsuits, these two objectives have been carried out more slowly than we hoped.

While other economic development initiatives (such as attracting visitors) have met with some success in Plumas County, the stream restoration and forest thinning activities have dominated the work of Plumas Corporation, in partnership with numerous other local organizations and individuals. The Forest Service plan to implement QLG called for thinning more than 10 percent of the national forest lands in the QLG area. The Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act, after a 429-1 vote in the U.S. House, was signed into law by the president in 1998. Since then a succession of congresses and presidents have supported the QLG effort, the largest forestry “pilot project” yet undertaken in this country.

The thinning strategy seems to be a success in all environmental areas, including wildland firefighting. The latest report reviews 20 of the wildfires that have interacted with the fuelbreak network built in the last decade. In every case, the fuelbreak network diminished the wildfire’s size, severity and cost. The lone area where the program has not worked well is in providing the economic stability sought in 1993 by QLG. The mills in Quincy and Chester are still active and are still the largest private employers in the county, but many logging firms have not weathered the storms of slowdowns.

Back in 1998, with passage of the QLG act, local residents and the forest service, in effect, got “hired on” by our country to see if the strategy worked. It does. We should all be proud of our mutual accomplishments in the last decade and should show these to the rest of the country. Together, with all the different public and private forestry participants, we have thinned more than 120,000 acres, close to 10 percent of the forests in Plumas County. There is similar forestry progress in the other seven counties in the QLG area. By far this is the largest and most successful such program in the country. We’ve learned to reduce fire costs and damages. This strategy will save resources and tax dollars well into the future, which is of tangible economic benefit. We continue to seek the yield of forest products and management that will sustain us into the future.

On the water side of the objectives, Plumas has also made significant progress. The Feather River Coordinated Resource Management (CRM) partnership of over 20 federal, state and local, public and private entities has worked at the invitation of private landowners since 1985 to restore more than 46 miles of gullied and eroding stream channels. The CRM’s long-term watershed monitoring dwarfs that of any watershed in the state, and is beginning to show effects of landscape-scale channel-floodplain restoration. Independent reviews have also documented the success of this program.

As we move forward with investing in water resources, we need to continue to focus on win-win solutions. Under current conditions, it can appear that an upstream landowner’s dried-up, eroded, sagebrush-lined gully benefits a downstream irrigator because that sagebrush doesn’t use much water (a lose-win situation). Science and monitoring apparently show this to be erroneous. Gullied channels sluice high winter flows downstream and out of the watershed; a losing scenario for all local landowners. The CRM’s goal has been to restore channel floodplain systems to improve retention of winter flows for season-long release. We need to improve our analysis to ensure that we do not develop floodplain restoration projects that result in win-lose situations. Water rights and beneficial uses need to be protected. With the experience and data we have in this watershed, this heightened analysis is possible, and is currently underway.

Clearly, a properly functioning watershed and healthy forests are vital economic resources, as is a stable community. As we feel our way into the new economic landscape recovering from a devastating recession, our continued ability to work together as a community to manage our forest and water resources will be our greatest asset.


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