Sierra Fellows

The Sierra Fellows Program places bachelor and advanced degree-holding Fellows in rural mountain communities in the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade ranges. Fellows work and live in the community, collaborating with community members to address some of their greatest challenges.
Students working to replant trees following the Butte Fire of 2015 in Calaveras County, an activity coordinated by a Sierra Fellow.

Past Projects

The Need

The Upper Feather River Watershed (the “Basin”) is a major source of water for the state of California, providing roughly 3.2 million acre-feet annually to downstream users. It provides critical habitat and resources for hundreds of species, including important fishery populations. However, anthropogenic influences have functionally removed hundreds miles of fish stream habitat in the Basin. As many communities throughout the Basin depend on a healthy watershed for their livelihoods, from clean water quality needed for agriculture and grazing lands to the tourism robust fisheries bring, better understanding of the current state of this watershed is important. There has been a lot of information collected on habitat quality and fish populations in different areas of the Basin, but this information has never been explored at the watershed-level scale.

The Fellowship

Vincent Rogers was selected to work on the Basin-wide Fish Assessment and Restoration plan, which will occur in two phases. In the first phase, Vincent will collect information from agencies and sources throughout the watershed to create a Basin-wide Native Fish Assessment. A unique aspect of this work will involve interviewing local anglers regarding their knowledge of the change in local fisheries over time, a true source of untapped information. Phase II will use the information from the Assessment to develop a Basin-wide Restoration plan, unique both in its scale and holistic nature. Vincent will receive technical assistance from two long-time fisheries biologists from the area who are his advisors, as well as members of the Feather River Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

The Need

The Butte Fire struck Calaveras County on September 9, 2015, destroying over 800 homes and residences in 22 days. The entire Calaveras Watershed was burned, much of this classified as a “high severity” burn, along with much of the larger Mokelumne Watershed within which it sits. In the wake of the fire, the remaining communities are struggling to recover with no Office of Emergency Services staff for the County, a dearth of available housing, and now, El Niño winter conditions. Winter rains not only pose a challenge for Calaveras residents living out of tents and other impermanent structures, but also create massive potential for erosion. High severity wildfires kill vegetation that normally absorb precipitation and reduce runoff, and also create hydrophobic soil. These factors combined create dangerous situations for stability in the landscape and for water quality locally and downstream.

The Fellowship

Long-time Sierra Institute partner, Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions, CHIPS, is based within the fire footprint. While already working to place a Fellow to work with CHIPS (see Alternative Energy below), both parties recognized the need for assistance in community and forest recovery efforts after the fire. Mary Sketch was hired as the Community and Forest Restoration Fellow, to work on efforts to help the community and its members get their feet back on the ground, while also tackling the immense challenge of helping to stabilize the landscape for this and future winter seasons. Mary’s work involved assisting at resource and aid stations, supporting the development of classroom curriculum regarding wildfires and healthy forests to help local students understand their ecosystem, and working with the community on erosion control efforts, including helping to a develop a community-powered sapling exchange program that resulted in thousands of trees being planted in the burned area! To hear more about post-wildfire recovery activities and her time as a Fellow, please read Mary’s blogs.

The Need

Fire suppression and unsustainable logging have resulted in unhealthy forests.

Decades of fire suppression coupled with histories of clear-cutting and unsustainable logging practices have left forested ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada in a dangerous state. These ecosystems are adapted to fire, which maintained open space between large trees and controlled the density of shrubs and shade-tolerant conifers. However, the mismanagement of these forests have left them choked with vegetation and stocked with an abundance of fuel, leading to the catastrophic wildfires that are becoming the norm for rural Sierra Nevada communities. However, perceptions regarding forest management and controlled burning are changing, and there is a renewed sense of stewardship among California to restore its forests to the managed and open spaces that they once were. With the increase in biomass that is removed from the forests during restoration, there is a need for outlets to take these stocks.

The Fellowship

The biomass facility will be run on wood pellets, and will produce dramatically less emissions that older biomass facilities.

Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions (CHIPS) is a local non-profit located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Calaveras County. CHIPS is invested in restoring the forests that surround the local communities, and creating jobs by employing residents to participate in fuels reduction crews. CHIPS is interested in taking this restoration further by implementing a combined heat and power facility in Wilseyville, which will provide heat and electricity by combusting fuels that result from restoration. Previous Sierra Fellows, Robert Zellers helped CHIPS lay the foundation for outreach related to this project in the form of a radio show, as well as assisting in the preparation of a major grant to support the facility.

Later Bryce Henney joined the Sierra Fellows team to continue this work, including assistance with permitting, contracting, and implementation of this facility. By assisting with the creation of the facility, the Bryce and CHIPS will help ensure that Wilseyville and the surrounding communities can continue to maintain healthy forests and reduce their susceptibility to future catastrophic wildfire events.

The Need

Plumas National Forest is responsible for managing over three-quarters of the land in Plumas County.

The U.S. Forest Service staffing structure, as with most federal land management agencies, is traditionally composed of few permanent staff and supplemented by cohorts of seasonal staff who are hired on to complete field work in the summer and early fall months. While this means that a lot of management work is advanced in the summer, ranging from biological surveys, to supporting forest restoration projects, to laying the foundation for timber harvests later in the season, all seasonal employees are capped at a certain number of hours of which they are allowed to work. Once seasonal employees reach those hours, they cannot continue working for the Forest Service for the remainder of the year, whether all project needs are met or not. Given recent “hiring freezes” for full time employees, remaining needs cannot be met by hiring new full-time staff either.

The Fellowship

Dave Hamilton, one of our first Field Fellows, is assisting with wildlife survey during his term.

In late fall 2017, Sierra Institute began exploring the concept of Field Fellows with the Plumas National Forest to help address some of these capacity concerns. Field Fellows serve shorter terms than traditional Fellows, anywhere from one to six months as opposed to one or two years. During this time, Field Fellows work with the Forest Service to advance needed work that largely couldn’t be accomplished otherwise, or until seasonal staff arrive in the spring. In the pilot year of this program, Fellows have been placed to help with monitoring forest restoration contract work, completing off-season wildlife surveys, and identifying stream invertebrates that were collected during the summer season. Field Fellows also support the local community by participating in educational activities with local schools and leading field trips that expose students to the Fellows’ area of expertise.