The Missing Meso-Scale with Patrick Wright

California has a notable history of state and federal government support for planning and managing water, biodiversity, forest, and rangeland resources at the landscape-scale.  The resulting wealth of initiatives provides anchor-points for increasing the pace and extent of conservation, restoration, and climate adaptation throughout the state.  With regard to forest management, however, we argue that while these efforts are necessary and foundational, alone they are often insufficient to fully address today’s quandaries.  This is because a handful of issues – such as utilizing restoration byproducts, conserving sub-populations of sensitive species (particularly in light of climate change), linking segments of lengthy trails, and managing (rather than suppressing) wildfire – involve a greater extent, on the order of more than a million acres, than the typical effort of a few hundred thousand acres.  We then use the new Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative to highlight a pioneering attempt to fill in the missing meso-scale necessary for cultivating multiple resilient landscapes. 

As mentioned in a previous post on networks, California has had numerous statewide, government-supported programs focused on landscapes.  Prominently, beginning in 2002 the State of California invested in and launched its Integrated Regional Water Management program to promote cross-agency, multiple-benefit water resources work.  The network of IRWMs now cover 87% of the state’s 100 million acres (~40 million hectares) and 99% of its population (39 million people in 2016).  In parallel, the US Forest Service has steadfastly implemented its Healthy Forests Initiative and Restoration Act (2002), Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (2009), National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (2009), and Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership (alongside the Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2014).  In 2017, forest landscape initiatives cover large portions of the USFS Pacific Southwest Region’s 18 National Forests (click here to download the full-size 11 MB map shown below).

R5 Regional Collabs Map - Snapshot

At the same time, oftentimes California’s forest collaboratives continue to struggle with some of the same problems that generated the original landscape endeavors. 

  • For example, despite broad support for the utilization of restoration byproducts for biomass and small-diameter wood products, many Forests find themselves unable to make byproduct removal, transport, and processing profitable. Reasons for this include topography (e.g., access) and geography (e.g., distance to a mill), as well as market development (e.g., prices paid for materials) and public policy (e.g., incentives or subsidies), but the bottom line is that byproduct utilization in many parts of California remains a missing link in the restoration equation.
  • Similarly, the territorial extent of viable sub-populations of certain wide-ranging, sensitive species with declining populations, like the California Spotted Owl and Pacific fisher (a small carnivorous mammal), exceeds the extent of single landscape initiatives. Attempts to spatio-temporally stagger treatments of sensitive habitat, or to build habitat corridors, may minimize impacts to animals within a landscape, but ultimately still not cover a large enough geography to minimize cumulative impacts to the sub-populations.  Climate change amplifies this weakness by shifting species ranges, and creating a corresponding need to migrate and/or relocate across large geographies over decades.
  • The iconic Pacific Crest Trail (2,663 miles/4,285 kilometers across Washington, Oregon, and California), John Muir Trail (210 miles/338 km across 3 National Parks, 2 National Forests, and 1 National Monument within California), and Tahoe Rim Trail (165 miles/266 km across 2 states and portions of 3 National Forests), readily cross jurisdictions. Establishing and implementing comprehensive, multi-jurisdictional trail management plans in turn requires reaching beyond single landscape boundaries.
  • Fire in the Sierra Nevada may readily cross borders, too, such as the 2013 Rim Fire (Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park) and 2015 Rough Fire (Sierra and Sequoia National Forests, and Kings Canyon National Park). The signing in 2015 of an innovative, legal settlement-based Memorandum of Understanding between the Forest Service, Sierra Forest Legacy, and 9 other agencies and organizations, for the first time allows land management agencies to manage wildland fires for ecological objectives, under the right conditions, rather than requiring unconditional suppression.  Typical landscape initiatives, however, cover only portions of National Forests or Parks, and provide little structure for coordinating management across landscapes to take advantage of this crucial opportunity to restore fire as the primary ecological disturbance process in the Sierra Nevada.  This opportunity constituted a major reason why the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership involves the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests as participating agencies alongside the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

Against this backdrop, the newly launched Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative (TCSI) binds together the California Tahoe Conservancy, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests, and several university and non-profit partners.  Its primary goal consists of improving the health and resilience of forest ecosystems and communities, and maintaining associated benefits over the long-term.  Land within its boundary covers 2.4 million acres (970,000 ha), including the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership (the subject of numerous posts) and six other forest landscape endeavors.

TCSI_Update_080717

On the surface TCSI looks similar to the numerous predecessors upon whose shoulders it stands.  TCSI does not aim, however, to build a new, mega-collaborative, with 100+ agencies and 200+ stakeholders, that tries to do everything the existing landscape groups already do.  Neither does it seek to go even larger and set statewide or Forest Service region-wide policy – a slow, difficult task given the dramatic diversity of California’s 13 ecoregions and sheer size (California’s area equals more than double the six New England states, for example).  Rather, TCSI aims to focus on the issues that the existing individual landscape efforts have struggled to resolve, and take them on at a meso-scale sufficient to cross ecological, operational, and economic thresholds.  In addition to the aforementioned stumbling blocks, his includes the opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (in a way consistent with historical forest carbon dynamics) at a scale sufficiently large to attract sustained institutional and state investment.  The general work plan for TCSI includes:

  1. Assessing the potential benefits of breaking the impasse on key meso-scale issues, and developing corresponding restoration goals;
  2. Inventorying the existing projects currently being planned by different land management agencies, and analyzing the gap between current planning and total needs; and
  3. Establishing a framework that supports existing work, while clearly setting the table (i.e., identifying priorities and associated funding streams) for those projects that come next.

Altogether, we agree that landscape initiatives constitute a fundamental shift in approaches to today’s resource management challenges.  Yet we argue that for a subset of key issues, individual landscape initiatives must be articulated – not conflated or collapsed into one – within a meso-scale intra-landscape structure.  Such meso-scale work also distinguishes itself from typical networks by tightly linking its constituent initiatives in a tractable geography through common intra-landscape restoration goals, scalar efficiencies, project coordination, and fund-raising commitments.  In this light, TCSI embodies a novel State of California foray into intra-landscape, meso-scale forest restoration.

Stepping back from your immediate geography, How is your landscape resilience effort working with others to create change at the intra-landscape, meso-scale? 

This post was written in conversation with Patrick Wright, the Executive Director of the California Tahoe Conservancy, a state agency charged with protecting and enhancing natural resources and recreational opportunities in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

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