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Partnerships Rock – Climate & Wildfire Success in the West – An Interview with David Edelson

“All the partners contributed significantly to developing and managing the project through funding and dedicated staffing and, through our shared interests, we were able to focus on getting the project done expeditiously, rather than on disagreements about whether or how the project should go forward.”

Twenty-eight thousand water-rich upstream acres being brought back to wildfire-resilient health. Greatly improved future water security for downstream communities and for hydroelectricity production. Ten million dollars raised for the work ($4 million more to go.) An engaged partnership that worked past their different concerns and pulled together.

These are the types of partnerships we’re seeing more and more of around the American West. Partnerships that are lowering the risk of catastrophic wildfire, protecting ecosystems and ensuring that in the time of a rapidly warming climate that some snowpack will remain and water will flow downstream.

The French Meadows project is a terrific example of smart, effective work. David Edelson with The Nature Conservancy, one of the lead partners, walks us through the key lessons learned and where the project is headed.

Does your community need to launch similar partnerships? Let us know and we’ll connect you with the right people to talk with in our 3,500 participant strong western water leader network.

Tell us about how the French Meadow project got started, and why it’s so exciting to you and for so many of us in the source water protection world? 

The project is a partnership with the Placer County Water Agency, Placer County, California and the US Forest Service (USFS). It’s focused on restoring a 28,000 acre area around two reservoirs west of Lake Tahoe. The restoration includes thinning, prescribed fire, and other innovative restoration practices. This Forest Service land includes a critical municipal watershed and also feeds hydropower dams. 

As for so many communities in the West, a high severity wildfire was the driver for the local water utility. That was the King Fire and it occurred in 2014, and caused significant damage to reservoirs, to the tune of millions of dollars a year for the Placer County Water Agency. So it was a wake-up call for the utility leaders, and their interest in the health of the watershed. French Meadows is upstream of the fire, and is a smart place to invest in restoration. 

So Placer County Water Agency, Placer County and The Nature Conservancy got together and went to the USFS with an ask to improve land management there. The USFS was on board, but very resource constrained. They didn’t have the money to do the work. So we said: how about we develop the plan, raise the funds and help implement the project? The Forest Supervisor, Eli Ilano, is very innovative and said yes. Because of the way we structure the partnership and NEPA process, we got from scoping to a signed decision in 19 months, a lot faster than the usual four years. This summer we began implementation, and it will take several years. 

The NEPA process here has been far quicker and more efficient than many, how did you do that? 

The USFS, in this case, authorized an Interdisciplinary Team leadership team led by consultants with subject matter expertise and experience in many similar projects. So the NEPA analysis was conducted and prepared by a combination of consultants, Tahoe National Forest personnel and staff with the Forest Service Enterprise Program. The public scoping notice, environmental assessment, specialist reports and decision notice were drafted, reviewed and edited by the Forest Service, consultants and partners, with the Forest Service retaining final authority regarding the content of all documents and analyses. That was significant in accelerating the timeframe for the projects to be authorized. 

You’ve leveraged a variety of funding sources, including the California cap and trade funding pot – what’s your secret? 

Yes that’s been huge for us. The total cost of the project is $14 million, and we have raised $9 million to date from state, federal, private and other sources. The Placer County Water Agency has invested heavily from their hydropower revenues, and they have kept their ratepayers closely informed about the project. They have not used a surcharge or user fee, but have focused on education. People in California, as throughout the West, are very concerned about wildfire. So this project is popular, it’s showing the ratepayers that actions can be taken that will protect their communities – people get that and are supportive. 

We also leveraged funding from California cap and trade funding mechanism (GGRF), which has made a $1 billion commitment to forest restoration over the next 5 years. That commitment is not just for state and private lands, but also includes federal lands. We have been very persistent. The formation of the partnership is always step one, and good materials to show our case and the power of our coalition. We have made many, many trips to DC, Sacramento, many other places to show funders in person how visionary this project is. It takes time but it works. 

What are the essential ingredients for building a partnership and project like this? 

Well we all know that the USFS is under pressure to get more projects done, and they don’t have the capacity to do them. So finding innovative leaders in the USFS, and meeting their needs for funding and project management is important. Once we sat down with Placer County Water Agency and realized we shared common interests and goals, the partnership was very smooth. We incorporated everyone’s priorities as best we could, and that helped forge a durable coalition. For example, Placer County manages some campgrounds that are real fire risk, so we built treatment of those areas into the plan. For The Nature Conservancy, prescribed fire is critical, and that also became a key part of the project. 

I want to note that visiting decision makers directly has also been so important. Placer County leaders got this project on the radar for many Republican lawmakers, offices that The Nature Conservancy wouldn’t necessarily be able to access. And we could do the same on the other side of the aisle. All in all it’s a good story of bipartisan work, of strange bedfellows alliances that decision makers really appreciate. 

David Edelson is the Sierra Nevada Project Director of The Nature Conservancy. He has nearly thirty years of
experience promoting ecologically sound management of the Sierra Nevada’s national forests. He is responsible
for leading all of the conservancy’s work in the northern Sierra, including land conservation at iconic sites like
Sierra Valley and Carpenter Valley, restoration and research at places like American River Headwaters/French
Meadows, and related policy efforts. Prior to joining the conservancy in 2011, he worked for the Natural Resources
Defense Council, Sierra Forest Legacy, and the Wilderness Society. An attorney by training, he has a JD from
Harvard University, an MA from the California Institute of Integral Studies, and a BA from Dartmouth College.

Photo credit: David Edelson/TNC


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