January 20, 2017

The irreversible force meets the resilient range–protecting the Sierra Nevada from climate disruption

What will human-caused climate change do to the Sierra Nevada? How can we protect the range?

The Sierra Nevada is a range of superlatives:

• the largest block of exposed granite on earth;

• the highest range in the contiguous U.S.;

• the deepest valleys: Kings Canyon plummets more than 8,000 feet from the summit of Spanish Mountain to the Kings River, and the Sierra’s steep eastern face plunges two vertical miles to the desert floor of the Owens Valley;

• on its gentler western slopes some of the country’s most diverse conifer forests including the world’s largest living species: the majestic giant sequoia;

• a reservoir of biological diversity, with 570 vertebrate species, including numerous threatened and endangered ones such as the Pacific fisher, bighorn sheep, California spotted owl, and Pacific salmon; plus thousands of plant and invertebrate species, hundreds of them endemic—found no place else on earth.

But much of the Sierra Nevada’s wildlife and vegetation may not survive a changing climate. The changes will be complex (less snow but more rain, and more frequent droughts), and are not entirely predictable. Already scientists see some animals shifting their ranges upward to compensate for a warming climate—but what happens to species at the top, which have no place left to go? Scientists also see many plant ranges moving downward, apparently taking advantage of moister conditions—but what happens to interdependent plants and animals when their ranges no longer coincide and they encounter new species? Already-diminished salmon runs in mountain streams will be further stressed by water temperatures too warm for the fish to survive. More frequent fires will alter plant communities.

The effects extend beyond the Sierra. The Sierra Nevada provides up to 65% of California’s developed water, but higher temperatures are steadily reducing the storage capacity of the snow pack. With more frequent droughts and changes in the timing of water flows, what will happen to the San Francisco Bay and Delta, which depend on peak flows of fresh water to flush out salt water? Fish species will dwindle or disappear; the Delta smelt is on the brink, and others may follow.

The Sierra will still be a big rock (though stripped of its glaciers and with less snowpack)—but what will be left of the diversity of life and landscape that we treasure today?

The Resilient Habitats campaign

The resilience of a natural system is its ability to bounce back from stresses and regain its ecological health. The goal of the Sierra Club’s Resilient Habitats Campaign in the Sierra Nevada is to build resilience throughout the ecosystems of the Sierra foothills and mountains. In the face of climate change we need to protect both threatened species and human communities. The Sierra Club’s highest priority is to limit human-caused climate disruption, but we have launched the Resilient Habitats campaign in recognition that climate change is already here, and we must act to minimize the damage.

Different parts of the ecosystem have different levels of intrinsic resilience. In some cases humans just need to get out of the way and let nature operate. In other cases, we must identify the most vulnerable species and relationships and figure out how to protect them. Throughout the Sierra we must control human impacts that limit resilience. We’ll need to influence agencies to remove non-climate stressors that already reduce habitat resilience, such as clearcutting, excessive roads, off-road-vehicle abuse, and overgrazing.

We will build upon over a century’s work preserving the public lands of the Sierra Nevada as national parks, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and other designations to ensure broader ecosystem protection. We will work to protect adequate space and core refugia for wildlife and ecosystems. We will campaign to stop excessive logging, off-road-vehicle use, mining, and development.

A key component of resilience is connectivity of lands, so that wildlife can move to find suitable surroundings. We are mapping the entire Sierra to determine how well its protected habitats are connected. We will prioritize preservation of additional areas to fill gaps in habitat linkage.

Climate-smart forest planning

The 11 national-forest units of the Sierra Nevada—the Modoc, Lassen, Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado, Stanislaus, Sierra, Sequoia, Inyo, and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit—and related nearby areas are all beginning revisions to their land-management plans. Influencing these plans will be a major Sierra Club priority. To promote “climate-smart” management, we’ll urge the Forest Service to recommend roadless areas and streams for Congress to designate as new wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers. The plans must protect key wildlife habitats by reducing logging, grazing, and off-road-vehicle use. We’ll identify strategic wildlife corridors for keystone species such as Pacific fisher and California spotted owl. Each forest needs to coordinate and link its protected habitat areas with those in adjacent units.

One plan that has already gone through a public process is that for the Giant Sequoia National Monument, part of the Sequoia National Forest. Unfortunately, the draft plan calls for far too much logging in the forests near the sequoia groves (see September-October 2010). The Forest Service treats the precious national monument as mere timber land. We are working to transfer the monument to the National Park System, which has a better track record of protecting the forest ecosystem.

In the Sierra’s lower-elevation conifer forests, rampant clearcutting on private forest lands may be the worst aggravator of the impacts of climate change. Sierra Pacific Industries, the largest private landholder in the West, is converting more than one million acres of its holdings from forested land to tree plantations, resulting in fragmentation and a tremendous loss of good habitat. We are working to stop this clearcutting through public education and regulatory reform. Wildlife do not know the difference between public and private habitat, and we need to preserve habitat linkages across different jurisdictions—federal, state, and private lands.


The Sierra Nevada Resilient Habitats Campaign is one exciting part of the Sierra Club’s national Resilient Habitats campaign. The Sierra is one of 10 ecoregions around the country for which funding is initially being solicited (see also article on the California Coast Resilient Habitats Campaign). The national campaign focuses on the need to link habitats nationwide and focuses on interregional habitat connections, for example linking southern Sierra habitats to those in the California desert (see “Across California”, ), and the northern Sierra to the Cascade Range and the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands that span the Oregon border.

To achieve climate smart forest plans we need your help. We’ll especially need folks to attend public meetings and write comments. To get involved, contact Sarah Matsumoto at (415)977-5579 or sarah.matsumoto@sierraclub.org

You can also work with the Bay Chapter’s Wilderness Committee, which meets on the third Tuesday of each month. For details see the Yodeler calendar, or contact committee chair Cassie Barr at CBatLoom@aol.com

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