What Happens in the Sierra Doesn’t Stay in the Sierra: Why Advocacy Matters

I’d like to get something off of my chest: The Sierra Nevada does not receive its fair share of state funding. There, I’ve said it. The region has historically been under-represented in state decisions about funding, especially for natural resource protection and management. This was, in part, the impetus for creating the Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) in 2004 – to provide a state-sanctioned “pocket” for conservation funding. But even with a state Conservancy for the Sierra, we still come up short. Nowhere was this more evident than in the negotiations around the 2014 water bond. That bond’s primary purpose was to make the state’s water system more reliable, yet early drafts directed no money to the SNC – the agency charged with overseeing the source for 60% of the state’s developed water supply; and later drafts, which did include the SNC, cut their allocation from $150 million down to $25 million.COMM KT BlogImage 2016 06

Sierra Business Council (SBC) learned a valuable lesson during those negotiations: if you’re not in the room, you don’t have a voice. And while many of our long-time partners – such as The Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, California Council of Land Trusts, or The Sierra Fund – are advocating in the Capitol, when push comes to shove, our top issues are not necessarily the same as theirs. So as decisions get made about where to spend scarce resources, the Sierra can still get left behind.

To start reversing this disturbing trend SBC created a new position: Government Affairs Director, designed to help organize and amplify the Sierra’s voice in regional, state and federal venues, especially regarding policy and funding decisions affecting the region. I had the great honor of being asked to fill that position three years ago.

By increasing funding to the Sierra, we can advance wildland conservation, restore ailing natural resources, improve land use planning, and strengthen the social and economic well-being of our local communities. Such outcomes help both the Sierra and the downstream urban communities that rely on resources from this rural region.

Don’t get me wrong, investment in urban areas is important since that is where the majority of the state’s residents live. However, the well-being of the state’s metro areas is inextricably tied to goods and services – such as clean water, clean air, carbon storage, habitat and recreation – that are provided by resource-rich areas like the Sierra. So really, protecting the Sierra is actually an important urban sustainability strategy!

Having an SBC staffer focusing exclusively on policy and legislative interventions gives us more capacity to effectively advocate for the region. We are now able to review and track proposed legislation across a number of key sectors, including climate change, forest and watershed health, community sustainability, alternative/efficient energy, and government operations, just to name a few. This year we started with a list of more than 70 bills and over time whittled that down to about 20 for active engagement. We analyze the bills for their potential impacts on our region, write letters of support or opposition, propose ideas for strengthening the content, testify at public hearings and sometimes even meet directly with legislators or their staff to share ideas. We create fact sheets and other educational materials and offer informational webinars and in-person gatherings to make sure interested groups and individuals have the data they need to participate effectively in these policy discussions. We represent regional interests at countless committee and task force meetings, as well as individual and organizational workshops and gatherings. And underlying all of this, we work to build and strengthen partnerships in the Sierra and across local, regional, state and federal agencies and organizations to raise the level of awareness and understanding about how critical the Sierra is and to prompt action that supports and enhances the Sierra’s contributions to the rest of the state.

To quote a friend and former boss: “What happens in the Sierra doesn’t stay in the Sierra!” I look forward to the day when elected officials from Los Angeles or the Bay Area or the Central Valley stand up with those from the Sierra and fight together for this region, saying: “We need more funding to protect the Sierra – it’s where our water/trees/recreation/critters come(s) from.” I’m hopeful that through increased advocacy efforts by SBC and our regional partners, that day isn’t too far off.