Most discussions about the economics in the Sierra Nevada focus on the timber and forest product industries as the primary source of wealth in the region. This perspective no longer represents the true nature of Sierra Nevada economics and is rapidly changing. According to the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (Stewart 1996), in most Sierra Nevada counties over the past twenty-five years, earnings from resource extraction industries have declined or remained flat while earnings in the economy as a whole have grown substantially. The primary areas of growth in the counties of the Sierra Nevada are from the recreation and tourism industries. These sectors of the economy continue to grow and on a range-wide basis provide more jobs and roughly the same total amount of wages as all the commodity-based sectors combined. In order to promote this emerging source of economic growth, the forests that support them need to be protected.
Recreation, for example, is the fastest growing use of the nation’s forests according to the Forest Service. Recreation opportunities in the forests of the Sierra Nevada offer every type of outdoor recreation from camping to snowshoeing, hunting to bird watching, and rock climbing to fishing plus everything in between. Nationally, recreation on national forests, including hunting and fishing, contributes over 38 times more to the national economy than the logging program. Recreational activities account for more than 50 million recreational visitor days per year in the Sierra Nevada. The Forest Service estimated that the original Sierra Nevada Framework protects recreation opportunities that will produce wages of $2.66 billion, with annual wages from recreation on the Inyo National Forest alone at more than $447 million and Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit at more than $866 million.
The original Sierra Nevada Framework provides protection of the areas on which tourism and recreation rely. Protecting the forests, however, not only promotes recreation and tourism. There are many other economic benefits connected with truly “healthy forests.” Clean water and biodiversity are other important functions the forest provides from which humans benefit. These benefits are referred to as ecosystem services, which are a wide range of conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that are part of them, help sustain and fulfill human life. Increasingly economists are attempting to place dollar amounts on these vital services to reflect the “value” and importance of protecting these attributes and services of the forest.
Some Important Ecosystem Services Provided by Sierra Nevada Forests
Clean Water - Over 60% of California’s clean drinking water that comes from Sierra Nevada forests and approximately 22 million people are directly dependent on the long-term viability of that clean water supply. Clean water comes from healthy, intact forest ecosystems. Without protected watersheds in these forests, California would find itself in a clean drinking water crisis.
Clean Air - The intact forests of the Sierra Nevada help reduce carbon dioxide (by sequestering carbon in plant tissues during photosynthesis), thus improving local and regional environments. Forests can also reduce airborne particulate pollution which is a very important service due to the heath risks brought on by the population density of the central valley, bay area, and Los Angeles basin.
Water Quantity - High levels of logging operations and the clearing of forest lands associated with them lead to a localized climatic impact which can reduce the amount of precipitation reaching a forested landscape. Due to this connection, the importance of a sustainable water volume reaching the economically vital agricultural areas of California is directly impacted by the management decisions on Sierra Nevada forests. Also, healthy forests actually help soak-up and store water when it is abundant and release it in times of drought.
Nutrient Cycling - The health of forest ecosystems and their continued production of clean air, productive soil, water quality, and biological diversity depends upon the cyclical manner in which forests utilize the essential nutrients that the forests provides. Soils come from mineral-bearing rocks and from organic matter, which come from the decomposition of plants and animals. The nutrients that plants get from the soil are stored in all plant tissues, such as leaves, stems and flowers. When these tissues fall to the ground they start to break down, and are eventually re-incorporated into the soil by rainfall and other natural processes. There, the organic matter is further broken down and slowly transformed to become nutrients that are available to growing plants (and the cycle continues). The entire basis for the ecological system which humans depend upon for food and other benefits cannot be preformed without this cycle.
Biological Diversity - The forests of the Sierra Nevada are widely considered by ecologists and biologists worldwide as one of the most diverse temperate conifer forests on earth as well as a unique and globally significant ecoregion. These forests serve as an important storehouse of genetic biological diversity essential to the long-term health of the ecosystems that humans depend upon. This diversity also lowers the costs of pesticides and herbicides due to the natural pest and disease controls present in these diverse ecosystems.
Recreation - Ranging from wilderness recreation and birding expeditions to hunting and fishing, the ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada provide some of the most dynamic and rewarding recreational experiences available on the planet, let alone in the United States or California. The importance of protecting and restoring the habitats and ecosystems which serve as the foundation for these recreation opportunities can not be overstated. Not only do these activities provide for necessary personal enrichment, they also bring billions of millions of dollars into the local economy of communities throughout the Sierra Nevada.
Flood Control - Healthy forest ecosystems produce stable soils which in turn help reduce the impacts and threats of erosion and sedimentation in watersheds throughout the Sierra Nevada. Protection of the structure of forests helps maintain stable water systems and in-turn helps reduce the possibility of large-scale flooding.
Climate Regulation - Sierra Nevada forests help regulate the climate by trapping moisture and cooling the temperature of the earth’s surface both within and adjacent to the Mountain range. The capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide by these forests also helps combat the increasing threat of global warming, and carbon sequestration by healthy, intact forests assists in reducing the long-term impacts of climate change.
Crop Pollination - Agricultural crops in the areas surrounding and within Sierra Nevada forests depend is large part on the pollination services of species that are often only found in well protected forest ecosystems. The birds, bats, bees, and other pollinators that our food crops rely upon for annual regeneration are just one vital part of the interconnected ecosystems found throughout the Sierra Nevada.
Scientific Knowledge - The forests of the Sierra Nevada continue to serve as an important global resource for scientists to better understand many aspects of biology, genetics, medicinal plant studies, archaeology, hydrology, climatology, and forest ecology to name a few. With such vast amounts of collective knowledge being derived from the forests of the Sierra Nevada, the importance of these forests to humanity is another substantial value of these ecosystems, though it may be impossible to place a dollar amount on such research opportunities.
Scenic Beauty - Tens of millions of people visit the landscapes of the Sierra Nevada each year to take in its unparalleled beauty, solitude, and in some cases, spiritual benefits. These visits often leave visitors more at peace and rejuvenated for life’s daily demands and offer a vital refuge for the millions of Americans who depend upon the possibility of visiting them as often as they choose.