From Back East to Out West

It seems like people always use these modifiers – back east, out west –  when describing the two coasts of the lower 48. It’s as if regardless of where you’re from, the West is the destination of a grand journey and the Eastern seaboard is the source of all known life (or at least where everyone’s parents live). Well, I perpetuated this stereotype by picking up my life in Boston to journey west in search of higher ground and wild open spaces.

COMM Blog EP Image 2014I’m joining the Sierra Business Council through CivicSpark, an organization whose goal is to build capacity in local governments, enabling communities to better address climate change. The opportunity to work on climate issues and be placed in the heart of the Sierra Nevada was a no-brainer for me, and I hope to learn as much as possible in my time here spent working with the people who call this region their home.

As someone who has spent much of their life growing up near and within urban areas, I could never get enough of the opportunity to escape to the mountainous playgrounds. I was fortunate to have a family that shared the same sentiments, exposing me at a young age to the joys found in the high hills. However, the reality is that these integral experiences with the natural world come with a price.

Not unlike the crowds that flock from the Bay Area to plunder the powder stashes at Squaw Valley, thousands of weekend warriors make the winter pilgrimage from Boston to the White and Green Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, respectively, to take advantage of the abundant recreational spaces the states have to offer. Visitors have even earned a not-so-flattering name from the locals, which I won’t repeat here. Flooding rural areas with teeming crowds of city slickers certainly has its ups and downs. Rural mountainous regions need the money that people bring in for recreation activities, but with economic activity comes increased vehicle emissions, overcrowding, and aggressive developments that encroach on working landscapes in need of protection.

I’ve found myself on both ends of this spectrum, as the weekend warrior making the four hour plus round trip from the Boston area, and as a student based in the foothills of the Adirondacks witnessing the crowds swarm Route 87 up north through New York to get to the spacious parks. It’s become very clear that humans, city dwellers and mountain folk alike, have an immense stake in the grand natural spaces that define our country—and it goes well beyond just our desires to play and recreate in them. Although the Sierra Nevada region contains less than 7% of California’s population, it accounts for a quarter of the land mass and, even more importantly, provides roughly 60% of the state’s water potable water supply (Sierra Nevada Conservancy). This may be old news to locals and the usual readers of SBC, but at least for me as a recent transplant, these numbers are eye opening.

Equally surprising is how little access to funding and resources the Sierra receives, regardless of how essential to life the region’s resources. The support for the region simply does not reflect its numerous contributions. California, although progressive in its environmental legislation, gears most incentives and programs to the populous metropolitan areas that have the means (and demands for it). Of the $7.12 billion in general obligation bonds meant for state water infrastructure projects, the Sierra Nevada is receiving barely one half of a percent (Assembly Bill 1471, Brown). While that still is no small sum of money, it seems odd to push funding efforts to the downstream use areas, when it’s the source areas (Sierra, Cascades) that are bearing the brunt of the problem. It’s comparable to fixing a faucet when the blockage is down ten feet of plumbing. That’s a simple analogy to draw regarding a state’s water crisis, but making improvements in the Sierra water infrastructure would benefit the entire state and it should be recognized that a low population does not mean low priority.

This may be a facet of the state’s huge size and population, and may be one of the places where my experiences on the East Coast differ from my new home. All of the climate change resiliency efforts won’t mean a thing if they’re not allocated to the most crucial areas that everyone has a stake in. Such are the challenges I anticipate facing in my work with CivicSpark and the SBC, but I’ll do what I can to embrace them and learn from the people who have spent their lives here.

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