Pacific Rivers Council Files Lawsuit to Protect Sierra Nevada’s Fragile Watersheds

May 16, 2005

The 2004 revised Sierra Nevada Framework ignores the most threatened and valuable natural asset of the Sierra Nevada: its watersheds. On May 16th, Pacific Rivers Council, a watershed conservation organization, filed suit against the Forest Service in order to protect the region's streams and rivers, which have been degraded by over a century of harm from placer mining, logging, road building, grazing, and more.

In 2001, after a decade-long planning and public involvement effort, the Forest Service adopted the Sierra Nevada Framework, a management plan for the regions national forests spanning over 11 million acres. But before the Framework was put to work on the ground, the Forest Service decided it needed revising and, in alignment with special interest groups, adopted a revised version of the Framework last year. This version not only increased logging, road use and construction, and resource extraction levels, but also removed many of the measures intended to protect the region's imperiled watersheds.

Sixty percent of California's drinking water flows from Sierra Nevada watersheds, which play a special role in the region's ability to provide many valuable ecological services. Water serves as the lifeblood for the entire ecosystem, and streams and rivers are the arteries and veins. Deanna Spooner, Pacific Rivers Council's Conservation Director explains, "Just as a blood test reveals much about a person's overall health, the quality of streams and rivers reveals the ecological health of the Sierra Nevada. And as a congressionally-sponsored scientific study found, the Sierra Nevada is not healthy."

This study, called the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, concluded that the regions aquatic and riparian systems are "the most altered and impaired habitats of the Sierra," which is why so many fish and amphibians in the region are in decline, including golden trout, the California state fish.

The Sierra Nevada has long been important to California's economy. In the distant past, it was the commodities, such as minerals and timber that underwrote growth California. But things are different now.

Today, the Sierra Nevada makes even larger contributions to California's economy, but not from natural resource extraction. Instead, they come from what economists call ecological services: the interaction of the Sierra Nevada's physical, biological, and climatological characteristics to provide clean water, healthy forests, attractive landscapes, and other attributes of a high quality of life for residents and visitors.

According to Spooner, "Watershed health, and the health of the species, humans and economy that depend on Sierra Nevada watersheds, has been blatantly ignored." She adds that, due to the numerous flaws in the Forest Services planning effort and the resulting Framework revisions, "The plan revision process and product is an affront to the ecosystem and to Californians that look to the Forest Service to protect the Sierra's natural heritage."

Other lawsuits have been filed regarding the Framework revisions, on behalf of conservation groups, industry, and the state of California. The Pacific Rivers Council's claim differs from these preceding lawsuits in its exclusive focus on rivers and watersheds, and the harm the organization sees arising from adoption of the revised Framework.

The Pacific Rivers Council believes that further declines in watershed health can be expected unless a widespread, systematic and scientifically based program of watershed restoration is initiated soon. The modified Sierra Framework does not come close to such an approach.

Pacific Rivers Council is represented by the Law Offices of Babak Naficy and the Law Offices of Brian Gaffney.

To read Pacific Rivers Council's complaint, click here.

To learn more about Pacific Rivers Council's work in the Sierra Nevada, click here.


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