About 60 miles from Auburn, deep in the Sierra woods, Alan Ehrgott floored the Polaris Ranger utility vehicle over dry creek beds and dirt roads. With a gray beard and blue sunglasses, he drove fast. He had places to see. Ehrgott, director of the American River Conservancy, is a conservation biologist by training. He helped found the conservancy to protect the American River. He’s also a jack of all trades, helping construct the camp his nine-person team will use for three years.
The mission? To restore 20 miles of logging roads by breaking them up, allowing nature to return and to show restoration is possible on a fast and large scale. By removing the logging roads, 20 miles of blue-ribbon trout streams will have healthier flows. Those streams are home to 4,000 new trout per mile in breeding season, and they will face less erosion impeding their path.
With help from Tahoe National Forest, Western States Trail Foundation, Protect American River Canyons, Placer County Water Agency and other groups, Ehrgott wants to set precedence: To show the goals of fire prevention, water saving and environmental restoration can be met together.
“We’re removing the handprint of man,” Ehrgott said, looking across the roads. “We believe this will show we can bring more water downstream and improve fire resiliency … . We’re finding a win-win scenario.”
The long haul
On 10,000 acres of American River watershed above French Meadows Reservoir, the camp — the nerve center of the project — is nearly finished. Built from scratch, rustic fir-panel bathrooms have hot showers. One of two plywood dorms are built, complete with a sink, open mosquito nets and a hot plate.
“We’re going to be here for three years,” Ehrgott said. About 10-20 scientists, machine operators and volunteers will live there.
The camp will be finished next week, in a part of the forest vulnerable to wildfire after being logged over 65 years. The project’s elevation ranges up to 9,000 feet, just above the height of Half Dome. Dense stands of young pine and fir trees cover the floor and spaghetti strands of old logging roads etch the surface.
The project’s 10,000 acres of forest – one of the largest the Coloma-based Conservancy has bought – took 12 years to purchase. It was fully funded in August of 2015 and includes 1,200 acres of meadows that support deer, black bear and songbirds, and popular trails used by the Western States Endurance Run and Tevis Cup, which will also be improved in the project.
The conservancy is working with UC Merced to monitor streamflow and water levels in the soil to prove the road conversions will improve snow retention and groundwater.
About 40 culverts will be taken out. Combined with the roads’ restoration, that means natural snowmelt and water flow through the foothills, freeingup streams filled with dirt eroded over decades. If all goes well, a third of the property — about half the size of Foresthill — will be donated to Tahoe National Forest to become wilderness.
Logging and restoration
Ehrgott and his team partnered with Robinson Enterprises Inc. of Grass Valley, which provides logging among other services. Robinson’s staff is operating the heavy machinery required to tear up the roads there.
Steve Arrowood operated the CAT excavator last Wednesday. With the help of Auburn geologist David Burns, they determined how to turn over the road dirt to allow the forest to return and water to flow correctly.
Arrowood knows the loggers who originally cut the roads deep in the woods. He loves nature and hunting and agreed with Ehrgott these areas didn’t need to be logged more.
“I like what they’re doing. There’s no reason for us to log here,” he said.
Burns has done a lot of road removal in the Pacific Northwest and is the designer of the restoration of roads to nature. He’s shooting for the big picture.
“Like your body or your arm, you get lots of little cuts, you die. These roads and the streams they interrupt are like those cuts. They eventually die,” he said. “That’s partly why we have so few fisheries left.
By clearing the roads, roots can return to the soil and small animals can burrow, creating holes in the soil allowing a path to ground water, and a watershed that flows naturally.
Ehrgott agreed with Arrowood the land was too high an elevation to be profitable. With a short growing season due to snow fall, it would take 60 years for trees to become profitable to log there, he said.
Water, erosion and wildfire
In the wake of massive wildfires across California, this watershed will serve as a “living laboratory” for scientists to study how forest restoration could reduce mega wildfires, increase water supplies and improve wildlife habitat.
The Sierra Nevada is one of the most important sources of water for drought-stricken California. The American River headwaters begin here and flow to Sacramento and beyond, helping provide drinking water to 20 million Californians.
Over 300 acres of young trees will be thinned in the project’s first phase. Studies have shown forest thinning reduces fires. When those fires burn, much sediment is carried into the watershed.
“We get a lot of sediment and debris in the river and reservoirs,” said Placer County Water Agency Director of Administrative Services Michael Willihnganz.
That in turn costs water agencies like PCWA millions of dollars if dredging is needed to remove sediment.
It also takes up space that would be filled by many gallons of water.
Ehrgott said they have to be choosy about their projects.
The many facets of this one made it attractive — and, the team believes, worth the $14.5 million the land cost, funded by over two thousand private donors and two state agencies.
That, and years of planning, is what it takes it seems to remove the mark of man.
“We found restoring this would have the best bang for our buck,” Ehrgott said.
CLICK HERE for the original article and photos in the Auburn Journal newspaper.