The effects of climate change in California are undeniable.
Just look at how reduced snowpack has lead to a very early beginning to the fire season.
How is that change affecting the Eastern Sierra? How can those impacts be mitigated?
On Wednesday, May 12, the Mammoth Lakes Planning and Economic Development Commission heard a presentation on a climate adaptation and resilience assessment at their monthly meeting.
The presentation was part of the Sustainable Recreation and Tourism Initiative.
Collaborators for the presentation were consultants from various firms and representatives from the Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access Foundation.
Eli Krispi, with Placeworks Consulting, said that the assessment was undertaken “in response to the change in climate we’ve seen in the Eastern Sierra.”
Krispi said that given the region’s reliance on outdoor recreation and tourism, the potential impacts of climate change could drastically alter the economy and appearance of the Eastern Sierra.
In approaching the project, the group looked at a few key questions:
-What are the risks to the region?
-Who and what is most vulnerable
-What are the impacts to the local economy
-What are the risks to separate management units?
These were boiled down into four components: a baseline natural capital assessment, a climate change vulnerability assessment, a climate change natural capital assessment, and a project evaluation.
Krispi’s colleague at Placeworks, Jacqueline Protsman, explained the vulnerability component.
The assessment looked at 136 populations and assets within the region and identified potential vulnerabilities for 10 distinct hazards (i.e. wildfire) using data from federal, state and local sources.
“Tribal communities and other frontline groups will face health risks [from climate change],” Protsman said.
“There’s potential for widespread destruction of recreation in the region,” she continued, referencing forests and wetland habitats.
IFC’s David Ryder took over from Protsman to discuss how they assessed natural capital in the Eastern Sierra.
“We identified the economic value provided by ecosystem services,” Ryder said.
Ecosystem services are the “benefits that humans receive from normal, functioning, healthy environments.”
To determine the monetary value of those benefits, Ryder and Co. inventoried the ecosystem/land types in the area, then assigned value based on data related to those ecosystems and US Forest Service/
and National Park visitation stats.
The results: ecosystem services provide between $43.6 and $190.9 billion in benefits. Average value came in at $95.4 billion.
The largest value came from carbon storage ($40 billion) and water resources($48 billion), with desert shrubland and coniferous forests being the most valuable ecosystems.
With so much inherent value tied up in water, the threat of drought, Ryder explained, expands beyond the agricultural/human impacts.
He estimated that anywhere between $19.4 billion and $114.6 billion in ecosystem benefits is at risk due to droughts.
75% of ski resort revenues could be lost due to decrease in snowpack.
With increases in wildfire frequency and intensity, $40.9-$163.4 billion in ecosystem services are at risk from large wildfire.
A 5-year average of 79,300 acres burned per year has already resulted in damages between $423 million and $1.9 billion.
“The lingering effects [of wildfires] such as a drop in tourism or landslides would have to be offset by remediation efforts,” Ryder explained.
In the long run, those efforts could become prohibitively expensive.
So what’s the plan to address those potential losses?
Aaron Pfannensteil with Atlas Planning Solutions explained that there were nearly 200 proposals for recreation-related projects in the region.
To prioritize those properly, the team created a set of scoring criteria, which includes stewardship/resource protection, access, vulnerability, existing infrastructure, and funding potential.
In the end, Pfannensteil explained, they came up with five project categories to bolster resilience.
Primary among them: Funding-ready projects with specific locations and infrastructure needs.
65 of them to be exact, set to be carried out over the course of the next five years.
“To really see implementation be successful, it really starts with understanding everything that you have to work with,” Pfannensteil said.
Those “shovel-ready” projects include fuel reduction, evacuation mapping, recreation area upgrades, and trail and bike improvements.
Up next: an asset inventory with comprehensive information on each with a focus on physical, natural, and cultural assets.
In short, pulling together information from all major stakeholders to get a full picture of what is available and in what condition.
A gap assessment looks at what needs to be improved within the assets based on demand for recreation and tourism activity.
This would take climate change into consideration of assets.
That would then be used to create a comprehensive master plan for the region.
The final category was expanded education programs that cover sustainable recreation, tribal history and culture, and climate adaptation.
Nothing concrete was referenced in the presentation. The final assessment is due for publication by Friday, May 13.
PEDC Commissioner Paul Chang cut to the chase.
“Why did we choose to hire a consultant to do this work,” he asked, “especially since climate change has been around for a fair amount of time?”
Town Community and Economic Development Director Sandra Moberly replied that “this was the result of a grant program that the Town applied for along with the Eastern Sierra Sustainable Recreation Partnership.”
The intent, she said, was “to understand climate change…and the value of the area from a regional perspective.”
Chang followed up by asking what the Town’s direction would be following publication of the study.
Town Councilman and MLTPA board president John Wentworth said that the state is “aggressively pursuing nature-based solutions.” Having a project list ready to go means the state may have increased interest in investing in the Eastern Sierra.
PEDC Chairman Michael Vanderhurst encouraged the Sustainable Recreation and Tourism Initiative team to actively engage the public for input as projects move forward.