Speaking Out for Our Region: Sierra in the Capitol Day

In a show of solidarity from the state’s source watershed, more than 20 Sierra leaders representing business, land conservation, water, recreation, local government, science, community sustainability and other interests traveled to Sacramento on May 15 for a day of discussions with legislative and agency leaders about Sierra issues.COMM Capitol 2016 07

This was not the first time that Sierra interests have taken their message to the Capitol. Coordinated Sierra “lobby” days date back to the early 2000s, or possibly before, when Sierra Business Council (SBC), the Sierra Nevada Alliance (Alliance) and The Sierra Fund individually and collectively organized groups of citizen activists to meet with state legislators about the need for public investment in the Sierra.

Some of the earliest lobby days involved advocacy around the creation of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) through AB 2600, a bipartisan bill authored by Assemblymembers Tim Leslie and John Laird and signed in 2004 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as other, less successful efforts. Once established, the Conservancy also worked with various partners to arrange Sierra-focused outreach events in Sacramento, some of which included Sierra art displays in the Capitol building and post-event legislative receptions. The overarching goal of all of these events was to raise awareness among members of the Legislature, legislative staff, and state agency personnel about the Sierra Nevada and the importance of the region to California’s well-being.

This year’s event, hosted by SBC, employed a slightly different approach. Where previous lobby days divided Sierra stakeholders into two to three-person teams that each visited a small number of legislator and/or agency offices, we wanted the full array of perspectives and interests available for every conversation. So, we set up shop in the Capitol basement and brought the legislators, their staff, and agency representatives to us.

SBC Government Affairs Director, Diana Madson and SNC Executive Officer, Jim Branham kicked off the morning with a regional briefing to multiple legislative and agency personnel, including representatives from:Eduardo Garcia Sierra Day

  • The Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA),
  • Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW),
  • Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR),
  • Department of Water Resources (DWR),
  • Natural Resources Agency (CNRA),
  • California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA),
  • CalFIRE,
  • Senate Environmental Quality Committee,
  • Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee,
  • Assembly Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee.

Then we scheduled a series of discussions with key legislative, agency, and committee leaders throughout the afternoon, including Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (pictured right), Chair of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and author of this year’s AB 18 park bond and AB 907 Office of Outdoor Recreation; Ken Alex, Director of OPR; Bill Craven, Chief Consultant for Senate Natural Resources and Water; Tina Leahy, Senior Counsel for State Water Resources Control Board; Catherine Freeman, Chief Consultant of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee; and David Bunn, Director of the Department of Conservation.

Each conversation was enlightening, both for the state representatives who got to hear questions and concerns from local leaders, and for the Sierra representatives who gained a better understanding of the legislative and regulatory responsibilities, considerations, and processes that govern decision-making in our state.

Sierra advocacy efforts like these are paying off. Two decades ago most legislators responded with blank stares when we asked if they knew where the Sierra was on a map or where their water came from. My favorite was when people would respond, “I’ve been to Yosemite/Sequoia/Lassen/Mono Lake/the American River/you name the spot… but I don’t think I’ve ever been to the Sierra.” Now, thanks to all the groups mentioned above, and many more like them, leaders in the Capitol are beginning to understand and acknowledge the importance of the Sierra to the rest of the state. As proof, this year’s Assembly park bond (AB 18), for example, includes funding for forest health projects, to be administered by both CalFIRE and the SNC (as the regional agency with the largest proportion of the state’s forestlands in its jurisdiction); and the Senate park bond (SB 5) includes funding for acquisition, restoration and management to protect source watershed areas that increase water retention, quality or supply in Sierra watersheds!  

This is a huge step forward. While neither of these bills has passed, by coming together on key issues like these, we are elevating the voice of this critically important region. SBC is pleased to have helped create this drumbeat that is being heard by urban and rural lawmakers and regulators alike. We hope to have many successes to write about in the near future!