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Population of Sierra is surging

SACRAMENTO – The population of the Sierra Nevada could triple in the next 35 years, threatening many of the mountain range’s Gold Rush-era towns with sprawl, gridlock and pollution, according to a report released today.Much of the 400-mile-long range is designated as national forest, park land or wilderness. It also holds plenty of private land where development could change the face and feel of the mountains, warns the Sierra Nevada Alliance, a 12-year-old coalition of more than 60 environmental organizations.About 600,000 people live in the 20 California and three Nevada counties that divide the Sierra, a population projected to grow to between 1.5 million and 2.4 million by 2040.Poor planning for that growth invites the problems that have plagued more populous areas, warns the Alliance in the first of a planned series of reports on the health of the range’s natural resources.Seven of the 20 California counties have general plans more than 10 years old, although five of them are expecting updates. But fewer than a third have plotted areas that deserve protection from development, and most have no conservation plans.”Population in and of itself really isn’t a problem. It’s how well we plan for it,” said Joan Clayburgh, the alliance’s executive director. “Ten years ago, they weren’t expecting all these population increases. … The tripling (of the population) would come by 2040, but even in 2020 we see a doubling.”California state Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, fears overburdening private property owners with restrictions on developing or altering their land. That’s one reason he backed this year’s creation of a Sierra Nevada Conservancy charged with protecting resources, promoting tourism and enhancing recreation in the area.”I think the idea isn’t to close it down, but to rather be smart and make it work for everybody,” Leslie said. “The Sierra needs to have a vital economy just like the rest of California. … I think there’s a balance that needs to be struck.”Overall, a third of the Sierra is privately owned, but that percentage varies among counties. Private landowners own half the land in 10 of the 20 California counties, and two-thirds or more of the acreage in five of those counties.The amount of developed land could double over the next half-century, even using conservative projections. Traffic congestion already has followed an increase in home building, and the environmental coalition fears a cascading effect on air and water quality in a region that provides much of California’s water storage and hydroelectricity.The counties most affected are Placer, El Dorado and Nevada, all within commuting distance of Sacramento. Placer County’s population is expected to grow by 84 percent, El Dorado’s by 42 percent and Nevada County’s by 38 percent by 2020.More isolated counties are affected, too, as they develop what Clayburgh called “a mailbox economy” – retirees who get their income from retirement accounts instead of working in the region.Much of the environmental focus has been on the region’s old growth timber, particularly as the U.S. Forest Service fights to implement a sweeping management plan for the 11 national forests that dot the range.But the oak woodlands that grow at lower elevations are most in danger from sprawl, particularly in the western foothills, where 70 percent of the current population resides. That pressure is likely to continue as the region is within ready commuting distance of Central Valley cities.


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