Amid pines, a model for growth

In California's Sierra Nevada, where the population is booming, an unusual coalition works to preserve the region's sense of place.

There are no retail franchises or fast-food chains in this historic Sierra Nevada mountain town, and Leea Davis wants to keep it that way.

"We want to take care of this place so that it doesn't become just like every other place," says the curio shop owner, standing on a street so full of gingerbread gables, steeples, and preserved California Gothic architecture that visitors might mistake what century they are in.

But a few doors up, at the Posh Nosh eatery, Vickie Tobey offers a contrasting view. "I don't see how you can put a fence around the place," she counters. "People here need to understand that the beauty of the area is going to draw more people. It's a fact of life."

The comments of these two neighbors in this hamlet of 2,800 reflect a tension that has long existed in urban regions, but is now infiltrating rural communities across the country: the effort to balance growth and development with a unique sense of place. As more and more people migrate from cities to pristine rural areas, communities from the Colorado Rockies to the wide expanses of Arizona and New Mexico are openly debating land use and values: open space versus development, habitat versus jobs, ranch land versus recreation.

But the debate takes on a particular urgency in the Sierra Nevada, an extensive mountain range where former mining towns - many with preserved historic districts - are sprinkled among ponderosa forests and breathtaking escarpments. Over the past 10 years, the pace of growth in this region's 21 counties has actually outpaced the rate in California's more urban areas, as nature lovers and Silicon Valley refugees use the region to ski, hike, and hunt.

To head off some of the problems arising from such explosive growth, local businesses and citizens in 1994 formed the Sierra Business Council, a nonprofit organization created to "secure and enhance the economic and environmental health of the region for future generations." Loosely translated, the group aims to accommodate growth while preserving the unique look and small-scale feel of developed areas.

Results have been so promising that experts say the region stands as a kind of blueprint for other communities dealing with the pressures of development.

"The American West is regularly confronted with what I call a false choice, namely that if you want development you have to accept significant degradation," says Tom Power, an economist at the University of Montana in Missoula and author of "Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: The Search for a Value of Place." "The Sierra region of California has mounted the first organized efforts to say, 'You know, that's not really true.' "

Range of Light

The longest single-block mountain range in the United States, the Sierra Nevada stretches some 400 miles. Naturalist John Muir called it "the Range of Light, the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen." In 1892, Muir began a militant fight to preserve the region's wilderness, resulting in three national parks (Yosemite, Sequoia, and King's Canyon), nine national forests, and several state parks.

Now the area is again under siege - far more so than in Muir's day. Specifically, the population is ballooning. After tripling in size between 1970 and 1998, the number of residents is now expected to surpass 1 million by 2020. Many of these newcomers are spilling over from Silicon Valley - either building second homes, or relocating and telecommuting. As a result, housing prices in the area north of Lake Tahoe jumped 25 percent between 1998 and mid-1999. In Truckee (pop. 12,000), the median price of a single-family home has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

The main impetus for the Sierra Business Council (SBC) came from Lucy Blake, a rancher who had moved to the area in the late '80s. Sparked by a 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Sacramento Bee called "Sierra in Peril," Ms. Blake realized there was an untapped constituency that needed to take part in discussions over how the area should grow: business people who understood that environmental quality has a direct impact on the region's economic prosperity.

She began rounding up concerned citizens: a couple from Auburn, a man from Truckee, a logger from Chester, a manager of a paper company. Dismayed by the polarizing rhetoric that often found developers on one side and environmentalists on the other, the group, which held early meetings at a bed-and-breakfast in Auburn, made it their mission to tone down the enmity and lighten up the dialogues that were taking place as the region's population began to explode.

"Typically, the history of the West has been for one side to push an agenda and the other sides to fight it," says Blake, now SBC president. "That can work if all the stars are aligned, but the victories can be fleeting if both sides' needs aren't met."

Preserving a human scale

Seven years later, what started as an educational and advocacy body has grown to a regionwide membership of 600 businesses, agencies, and individuals - from timber companies and software manufacturers to shop owners, ranchers, and casino owners. Beyond holding yearly vision forums and leadership seminars, and issuing planning guides and indexes of regional assets, the council's fingerprints rest on dozens of projects for hundreds of miles beyond the small house in Truckee where the staff is based.

"We are trying to preserve a pedestrian, human-scale community that is being lost elsewhere in California's sprawl but is still prevalent here," says Darin Dinsmore, SBC's director of town planning. "We are promoting a neighborhood form of development with mixed uses of housing, businesses, and recreation all within a five-minute walk."

One of the original 14 members was Mark Frisch, an urban refugee from the sprawl of San Diego. After running a restaurant for several years in Truckee, Mr. Frisch began to see signs of the same development pressures that had plagued San Diego - and he grew determined to do something about it. "Everything I was seeing convinced me there had to be a new model for making all these development decisions in the Sierra," he recalls.

In 1999, Frisch headed SBC's Placer Legacy Program, a project to help preserve Placer County's open space. Five years earlier, the county board of supervisors had passed a plan, which included agricultural conservation and endangered-species protection. But the open-space plan had languished on the shelf with no way to implement it.

SBC helped raise nearly $700,000 for the project, and then created a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) satellite program to assess county properties such as watershed areas, stream corridors, and scenic vistas, with an eye to establishing which were most in need of formal protection.

After meeting with local officials, residents, and businesses, SBC devised a plan that met core concerns of environmentalists and farmers. Among other ideas, it proposed agricultural easements that pay farmers for the habitat value of their land. If certain farmers agree to cultivate rice instead of other commodities, they can qualify for thousands in federal funds. Such deals allow farmers to stay on their land, while providing much-needed habitat for migrating waterfowl.

People still need to shop

Other SBC projects include preserving the unique community of June Lake, near the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park; an open-space conservation plan near Lake Tahoe; and a 20-year planning document for Inyo County.

"We wanted to create a vision for our communities for the next 20 years," says Julie Bear, county super-visor for Inyo County, which held an SBC-aided forum attended by some 250 people, from environmentalists to ranchers to businessmen. "[SBC] brought us so much factual data that helped us get around the rhetoric that usually gets us mired down."

Not every encounter in the region is a success story. Some residents still complain that too many people are coming into the area. Indeed, over 81 percent of the region's growth is from in-migration.

And new residents need hardware stores, banks, and the occasional mall. Five miles down the road from Nevada City is an eyesore of franchises that looks like countless others in 50 states. But the overwhelming consensus is that such activity is being managed with the kind of care not often achieved in the West.

"Right now, PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric] is selling 10,000 acres of land just outside town, and people are worried whether they are going to sell it to developers or environmentalists," says Edward Falick, a Nevada City resident. "We have the confidence here that no matter which way it goes, the right kind of things will happen. We can't get around encroachment totally, but we can manage it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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