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Placer County wilderness preservation efforts impacted by economic hardships

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Economic hardships for donors and a state fiscal crisis are creating uncertain times for groups trying to conserve and protect Sierra Nevada lands. A poll by the Truckee-based Sierra Nevada Alliance of 68 conservation-based groups found 10 had laid off staff, 26 had laid off contractors and two had shut down operations. Leslie Warren, executive director of the Placer Nature Center in Christian Valley, said that with public schools cutting back on field trips to cut costs, the education program will have about 40 percent fewer visits than its yearly average of about 7,000. Local groups like the Gold Country Rotary in Auburn, which provides funding to help with Rock Creek School field trips, have stepped up but it hasn’t completely offset the downturn in education funding for visits, she said. Donors are finding it harder to give. An end-of-the year membership drive wasn’t as successful as hoped for and the Nature Center is now dipping into a contingency fund built up over the past 17 years. Warren said the organization’s budget – which is normally about $170,000 annually – will have to come up with $8,000 in liability coverage in March. “We’re looking at that with trepidation,” she said. “We’ll take a big hit on the contingency but we will carry on.” At the Placer Land Trust, the state freeze on bond-related payments has meant that while funding has been approved by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, no money is being received for its Sierra Canyon View Preserve watershed and habitat restoration project off Auburn’s Foresthill Avenue. The Auburn-based Sierra Nevada Conservancy board had approved nearly $300,000 for a project, that also included fuel-load reduction. The plan had won support from a wide spectrum of local community groups, including the Placer County Visitors Council, California Oak Foundation and Auburn State Recreation Area Canyon Keepers. But with the mid-December freeze in state funding from bonds, the land trust was caught in a funding squeeze on the project that forced it to lay off four contractors until further notice, said operations manager Jessica Pierce. The land trust was also working with the California Conservation Corps to reduce forest-fire fuel load on the 50-acre site, so that will mean that group will be without one of its potential projects, she said. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy has been a key regional player caught in the cash crunch. Executive Director Jim Branham said that when the conservancy was told that all Prop. 84 funds approved by voters were frozen Dec. 17, it meant all work under those grants was to immediately cease – and that no new grants could be approved. “We’re still under that freeze and not sure when it would change,” he said. While a budget agreement could theoretically allow more funding to be freed for conservation projects, the bond market that is paying for the projects is weak and international markets are not buying state-issued paper. The conservancy awarded $16 million in grants last year, but only a small percentage of the projects the money was for had been completed at the time of the state freeze on funding, Branham said. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.