Sierra Conservancy has models for success
The Sierra Nevada Conservancy has been heralded as a means for the diverse mountain range to have a collective voice. But that very hope also represents the conservancy’s greatest challenge.
The new agency, signed into existence last month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, must receive input from 22 counties with differing politics and demographics and then distribute funding across 25 million acres of land with just as many different needs.
As the ninth state conservancy, the Sierra conservancy has several models to follow. The California Coastal Conservancy, created by the state in 1976, has similar breadth in funding conservation programs along the 1,100-mile California coastline. The Tahoe Conservancy, the only other conservancy in the Sierra Nevada, deals with the unique needs and resources of the Lake Tahoe basin.
The coastal conservancy has been successful in such a large area by working with local agencies and organizing its 65-member staff regionally, said Dick Wayman, director of communications for the coastal conservancy.
“I think our philosophy generally has been the locals know better than we do,” Wayman said.
Almost 40 of the approximately 65 coastal staffers are program directors based in an area outside of the agency’s headquarters in Oakland. But at the beginning of its 27-year history, Wayman said the fledgling state agency had to develop strategies to best operate such a wide-ranging organization.
“There are definitely growing pains,” Wayman said. “We didn’t have a model to follow.”
The Coastal Conservancy has largely avoided controversy and has worked hard for consensus on conservation issues, said Wayman.
“We haven’t had that many huge controversies. We haven’t made that many enemies,” he said. “We have never forced anyone to sell properties.”
That should be welcome news to critics who worried the Sierra Nevada Conservancy could become a land-grabbing state agency. The Sierra conservancy, unlike its coastal counterpart, has no authority of imminent domain or land ownership.
Wayman said the coastal conservancy spent its start-up period studying the most effective way to go about its goal: To preserve, protect and restore the coast.
“A lot of action was just figuring out what to do,” Wayman said. “There were a lot of studies.”
California conservancies rely heavily on bond money from state propositions, a reason the coastal conservancy’s budget has fluctuated from $8 million per year to more than $100 million.
Dennis Machida, executive director of the Tahoe Conservancy, said the large geographic region of the Sierra conservancy will present real, but not insurmountable, obstacles.
“It’s a large area and that is a challenge, there is no question,” Machida said. “If you put it in terms of objectives, as far as air quality and water quality, that will begin to narrow it down.”
Machida said establishing the needs of the region and attacking the conservancy’s plan issue by issue would be a successful way to equitably fund conservation across the Sierra Nevada.
“I think that, from the beginning, the best thing to do is look comprehensively at all the needs, so you are able to integrate them,” he said. “What we’ve learned is it pays to look at the bigger picture.”
And the Sierra Nevada has a jump on the big picture, thanks to a working group that published a detailed list of the mountain range’s funding needs in 2002. In that report, the group estimated that the Sierra would need more than $327 million for fuel management in forests and $47 million for addressing roads in wetland areas.
The California Resources Agency is currently applying for private grants to fund the conservancy and may seek a mid-year augmentation of the budget to acquire start-up funds for the agency, said Jedd Medefind, chief of staff for Assemblyman Tim Leslie, co-author of the conservancy legislation.
A board of directors could be chosen by January or February and an executive director would likely be on board by March or April of next year. In 2006 and 2007, Proposition 40 funds, which are restricted for use only on water issues, will head into the conservancy’s coffers.
But the first year will be all about establishing priorities and engaging the Sierra Nevada community, said Medefind.
“The first year will be connecting with the local community and letting them know how they can be involved … not dispersing funds,” he said.
The conservancy will likely use the six subregions that the legislation identified to help manage an outreach campaign and needs assessment that appear intimidatingly large at the outset.
“The conservancy’s goal will bring everyone to the table in a way that has not been done before,” Medefind said.
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