A Partnership for the Northern Sierra—Land&People
Becky and Jim Morgan disagree on which of them thought up their pioneering idea for conserving their favorite mountain landscape. “It was Jim’s idea,” she says—and he is just as sure that it was hers. They do agree on where and when the notion came up: in their kitchen in Los Altos Hills, California, in 2007.
For years, the Silicon Valley couple—he a retired technology company CEO , she a former county supervisor and state senator—had given money to a handful of nonprofit conservation groups working to protect the northern Sierra Nevada, where the couple owns a second home. They had gotten to know the staffs of these nonprofits and admired their work. And on this day, as Becky was passing through the kitchen, Jim said to her (or maybe she said to him), “You know, if we get these guys working together, maybe they could do more.”
So was born the Northern Sierra Partnership (NSP), five conservation nonprofits sharing strategy, leadership—and, most unusually, donors and funding—to prioritize and execute conservation projects across a fivemillion- acre swath of mountains, from south of Lake Tahoe north to Lassen Volcanic National Park. The groups include The Trust for Public Land (TPL) and The Nature Conservancy, on whose state board Jim serves; two local land trusts, the Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Feather River Land Trust; and the Sierra Business Council, which works to preserve the economies, communities, and ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada.
The goal: raise $100 million in donations to leverage $300 million in public funding and protect 100 million acres, either by buying land and transferring it to the U.S. Forest Service or state park and wildlife agencies, or by purchasing working forest and working ranching easements that allow sustainable forestry or cattle ranching but prevent the sale of the land for development.
“We thought that by having a clear strategy and set of priorities, we would be able to go to other donors, show them the kind of collaboration that was taking place and the importance of it, and hopefully raise more money than the five organizations were doing individually,” Becky says.
In May 2007, the Morgans assembled the partners in the Sacramento office of the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, which is experienced in designing and helping to fund conservation initiatives. The state had recently passed a bond act that would add public funds to donated conservation dollars. “Now is the time,” Jim told the group. “The money is available and the need is there.”
The Morgans launched the effort with a commitment of $10 million from their family foundation. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation kicked in $10 million, and various other donors have since added $10 million more. In October 2008, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger added the state’s stamp of approval to the partnership at a public event at Donner Lake, near Lake Tahoe. And U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has been instrumental in securing federal support for the effort. Now in its third year, the NSP has three staff members, more than 10 projects under its belt, and many more in process.
Just as important, it is pioneering a new way for conservation groups to cooperate on protecting a large ecosystem. One of the first things the Morgans did was to look for models among other conservation partnerships across the country, but they found none with the level of cooperation they were seeking.
“We thought that by having a clear strategy and set of priorities, we would be able to go to other donors, show them the kind of collaboration that was taking place and the importance of it, and hopefully raise more money than the five organizations were doing individually.”
“We’re at the cutting edge of how conservation is being done,” says Dave Sutton, director of TPL’s Sierra Nevada program. “We’re creating it as we go along.”
A New Level of Cooperation
In summary, the NSP is a coalition of groups that raises funds together and then distributes them for project use by its member organizations according to the conservation value assigned to each project. While it is not unusual for conservation groups to work together, it is almost unknown for them to pool zealously guarded donor lists to raise funds that may or may not go to their own work.
“It took awhile for the partners to get used to this idea,” says Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust. “Then it gradually sank in that we would be so much better off in the partnership than going it alone. For one thing, the NSP is such a grand vision that it captures the imagination of donors, who are much more likely to write a big check.”
Like the other groups, the Truckee Donner Land Trust continues to do projects outside the NSP framework— often smaller efforts, vital to the community but not necessarily regionally significant and thus unlikely to qualify for funding under the NSP’s formal prioritization scheme. On the other hand, last year the local land trust completed three projects using NSP funds, all of them in partnership with TPL. “NSP has greatly enhanced our capacity,” Norris says.
On a laptop computer in his San Francisco office, John Bernstein, the NSP’s president, calls up a brightly colored spreadsheet to demonstrate how the prioritization system works. Listed in the first column are a dozen or so projects proposed by one or another of the five member groups and currently under consideration for NSP funding. Succeeding columns hold scores for each project in various categories—resource value, threat abatement, financial leverage, strategic value— culminating in a total score that establishes the project’s overall priority.
Who gets to assign the scores? All the partners do, in discussion. “This is the way we get from individual advocacy to an accepted ranking by the entire group,” Bernstein says. “If a project doesn’t rank high enough, it doesn’t get funded.”
NSP sponsorship and funding give the partnership significant credibility with government agencies, John Bernstein notes. “Agencies are used to nonprofits coming to them and saying, we’ve got a great deal for you and we’ll put up 1 to 2 percent of the money,” he says. “We’re coming to them and saying, we’ll fund 20 to 30 percent.”
A Region at Risk
Jim and Becky Morgan met back east in the 1950s, as students at Cornell University in upstate New York. Becky, a Vermont farmer’s daughter, taught Indiana-raised Jim how to ski in the hilly Northeast. After college, they came to California, where, beginning in the 1970s, Jim would help build Applied Materials into one of the world’s leading semiconductor equipment companies. The couple— soon to be joined by two children, Jeff and Mary—began going to the northern Sierra to ski. “We just loved the out-of-doors,” Becky says.
But in recent years the Morgans have grown ever more worried about the accelerating pressure of development on the Sierra’s forests and waters. As the idea for the NSP took shape, they funded a master’s degree student to meet with the potential partner groups and feel them out on the plan. And they funded a study by The Nature Conservancy to help them better understand what might be needed.
The more they learned, the more concerned they became. For more than 150 years, the region’s lakes, rivers, meadows, conifer-draped slopes, and granite peaks have served as a mountain playground for Californians and visitors from all corners of the globe. People come to ski, fish, hike, backpack, camp, rock climb, swim, boat, or simply enjoy the region’s dramatic scenery.
But the region’s value extends far beyond recreation. The six rivers that arise in the northern Sierra provide 65 percent of Californians with at least a portion of their drinking water while also supplying water to the growing cities of northwestern Nevada. Half of California’s native plants are found in the northern Sierra, along with more than 400 animal species, including the greatest abundance and diversity of birds in the entire mountain range. No other part of California offers species a greater opportunity to survive in the face of climate change.
Other characteristics of the northern Sierra put these recreational, scenic, and environmental benefits at risk. Unlike the central and southern Sierra, whose high-elevation wilderness areas and world-famous national parks are largely isolated from major thoroughfares, the northern Sierra is served by a network of all-season highways, including Interstate 80—the only four-lane route across the Sierra. These roads put the heart of the region within a few hour’s drive of the San Francisco Bay Area and burgeoning Central Valley cities.
Furthermore, a 19th-century federal policy that awarded every other square mile to companies building the transcontinental railroad left much of the landscape parceled into an illogical and difficult-to-manage “checkerboard” of public and private lands. The private land, long since acquired by forestry companies and increasingly targeted for development, includes some of the region’s choice meadows, watersheds, highelevation forests, and recreation areas. Development in the checkerboard could pollute rivers and streams and disrupt wildlife habitat and the movement of wildlife between adjoining public lands. And it is notoriously difficult and expensive to protect such development from wildfires.
“We’re not trying to stop development, we’re trying to do smart development based on all we now know about resource management,” Jim Morgan says.
An Entrepreneurial Experiment
Protecting the choicest checkerboard lands is the focus of TPL’s Sierra Checkerboard Initiative, launched in 2001 with support from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and the Bella Vista Foundation. It is also one of three initial goals of the NSP. The others are creating a greenbelt around Truckee, the region’s largest community, lying directly in the path of growth flowing north from around Lake Tahoe; and, farther north, protecting the headwater valleys of the Feather River, a key source of Californians’ drinking water. Notable among these valleys is Sierra Valley, a stream-riddled expanse of ranching meadows that, at 130,000 acres, is the largest alpine valley in the Sierra Nevada and one of the largest in the nation.
To these efforts, each group brings it own skills and relationships. The Nature Conservancy brings expertise in conservation biology, climate science, and largelandscape conservation. The local land trusts bring irreplaceable local relationships, admirable track records of conservation, and knowledge of their home landscapes. The Sierra Business Council brings the credibility of an organization that sees conservation as a force for sustainable economic growth. And TPL brings a proven ability to raise public funds for conservation, a record of having protected close to 50,000 acres in the northern Sierra— more than any other conservation group—and decadesold relationships with important landowners.
Key among these landowners is the forestry company Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), the region’s largest private landholder, with whom TPL has done conservation projects for 20 years. “The trust and relationship we have with TPL underpins our ability to do business with the NSP,” says SPI vice president for resources Dan Tomascheski, who first began visiting SPI lands now being considered for protection in the 1960s with his father, a forester.
Lands that might be considered for protection include high-elevation lands, which are somewhat less productive for forestry; areas with high public use adjoining public lands; and those with important biological or archaeological resources.
“We feel good about how we’ve taken care of these lands—proud that they are of interest to TNC and TPL,” Tomascheski says. He appreciates that the NSP partners seem to understand that some protected lands need to include sustainable forestry, which preserves local jobs. “The NSP looks like it has potential for creating working landscapes. We feel good about doing more projects in the future.”
No one knows whether the NSP will meet its 100,000-acre goal, but Jim and Becky Morgan are optimistic. While the economic downturn that began in 2008 may have slowed fundraising a little, it has also slowed development and made land available at lower prices, creating a once-in-a-generation opportunity for conservationists. And the partnership is fulfilling its promise as a model: two other organizations patterned on the NSP are now working to protect land in the southern Sierra and along the San Joaquin River.
Becky Morgan calls the NSP “an experiment—a Silicon Valley-type entrepreneurial endeavor.” One of the couple’s hopes is that other Silicon Valley donors will understand the importance of protecting what Jim calls “one of the world’s unique landscapes” right in their own backyard. “The Northern Sierra Partnership was the right opportunity at the right time with the right people,” he says. “The partners see that by working together we have a real chance of pulling this off.”
William Poole is the editor of Land&People.