Perazzo Meadows Tour 091

Perazzo Meadows 091510
The Sierraville Ranger District and The Truckee River Watershed Council gave the press a tour of Perazzo Meadows.

The USFS is doing great work in the Perazzo Meadows, and they gave the world a chance to see it.  The press from Reno and Sacto were called to the tour, but can’t find Little Truckee Summit unless TNC is involved.  However, the local press was well represented by derelicts.

The Fourth Estate

There are, hidden among the granite peaks of the Sierra, a number of high elevation Edens, vast grassy wetlands and alpine meadows where, for the months between May and October, wildlife of every variety thrives amid a diverse plant community.  Certainly among the most beautiful are the Perazzo Meadows, just a few miles off Highway 89 at Little Truckee Summit.  
Water gathers from slow melting of high mountain snow and trickles through roots, organic soil and gravel to gather in the basin of the Little Truckee River.  The series of meadows were used for dairy cattle, and ditches were cut to direct the flow and dry out some land.  The Meadows are along the Henness Pass Road, and there are causeways which facilitated travel across the wetlands.  Logging in the hills disturbed the soils and caused excess siltation.

It has become fashionable to point to the degradation caused by early farming, mining, logging and road building techniques.  The truth is that the growing cities and towns of the 1890’s and early 1900’s were anxious for the products from the Sierras, including dairy and lumber, and the men and women who labored to produce those products were hailed as the forefront of civilization, once seen as a good thing.  The high meadows are no place for sissies even in spring and fall, when the weather can turn suddenly deadly for man and beast.  Working with livestock and wrestling logs is still a dangerous and rugged life, suited for those who understand it and who can cope with the weather and flack from urbanites who don’t, and can’t.  The products of strong women and men in the Sierra no longer mean as much to the cities, and their effect is seen not as civilizing, but as degrading. 

However, even those who live by the land and forest today acknowledge that their grandfathers didn’t understand the complex and fragile nature of the alpine watersheds. 

The plugs are clearly seen.  They are key to raising the water level and holding back erosion.

Center: one of the plugs and resulting pond.

It is easy to be fooled by what you see in a watershed like the Perazzo Meadows.  Typically, there’s some wetlands, some places that are soggy some or all of the year, and then the stream banks and the busy little river.  This area is dominated by grasses, sedges and willows. A little away from the stream, higher in elevation, are those plants which can tolerate drier soils, such as sagebrush.  It doesn’t seem that drying one part, or straightening the stream a little, would have much effect.
But, that’s the linear view of rivers and streams; the truth is much more complex.

Cows follow the trail to cooler grazing.  Meadows and ungulates have an eons long history together, and cattle can help keep conifers off the meadows and spread meadow grass seeds.  It is reported that one ranch has grazing rights in the area going back to 1912. 

What we see as a meadow and stream is really a long basin of organic and inorganic soils through which a long, slow river seeps, with only part of it exposing itself to wear a channel along the surface.  The meadow accumulated through the actions of water, plants, and erosion.  Plant roots catch bits of silt, building the soil, allowing microbes to anchor and free organic elements, encouraging burrowing insects and mammals which aerate the soil and encourage nutrient exchange.  Bits of broken mountain are carried by the water, caught by the plants, encouraged by animals to create what amounts to a water catching and filtering system.  We see only plants, bogs, and the river.  
If something happens to cause the stream channel to deepen, such as being straightened, or being pinched by a causeway, the water runs more quickly, draining the basin, lowering the water table, changing the plant life and carrying soil away, instead of slowly building it.   
The Forest Service, in conjunction with the Truckee River Watershed Council and the Truckee Donner Land Trust, has obtained the land (nearly 1000 acres for just under $4.5 million) and are using ARAA, or “recovery act” funds to bring the Meadows back to a healthy watercourse.  Read a good account of the ARAA funds HERE

There are those locally who bristle at the idea of good land going to the Forest Circus.  Many are all too familiar with the "Keep Out, U.S. Government Land" signs that have appeared, and the idea of the Forest Service or even Cal Fish and Game owning land chafes.  There doesn't seem to be any other way of preventing development on these special places.

Randy Westmoreland, USFS Hydrologist, shows how it's done.  Background: the plug is created, now the
vegetation is restored. 

Because streams and wetlands are complex entities, arising from the interaction of several factors, it isn’t a simple thing to restore them.  Forest Service Biologist Randy Westmoreland has pretty much hand crafted the new system.  Using heavy equipment to create the plugs, Westmoreland checks each one to insure the proper grade.  One purpose of the plugs is to allow water to flood the Meadows in the Spring.  To accomplish this, the plugs must be at exact heights.  Elevation is so important, one can distinguish even slight elevations by the change in vegetation.  To keep the Meadows green, the water table needs to be stabilized, and keeping the water from the annual flood season is critical.

Lush grass and strong willows filter water and catch sediment.

The key is the water table.  This freshet leads to the Little Truckee; it's an indication of the water table.

Healthy wetlands.

The primary methodology is to plug the degraded channel with material, and cover it with native vegetation.  The channel between the plugs becomes ponds, capturing sediment.  The meadow and the river bed begin to heal, more water stays on the meadows leading to more grass; more grass means more sediment captured.  

There are many beneficiaries of this change.  The Meadows store and clean water, which is important to Stampede Reservoir and points east, including the thirsty towns of Nevada.
But, the Meadows are also critical for the health of the watershed, fish, amphibians, and all the critters that help an ecosystem function.

There is no doubt the long range benefits of the work now being done by the Forest Service, Truckee River Watershed Council, the Truckee Donner Land Trust and other supporters include a more healthy Sierra County.  Very few want to see large summer homes in the Meadows or even in the nearby lands.  Those lands are part of the “checkerboard” where Sierra Pacific Industries property skips every section with Forest Service and other private landowners.  Everyone benefits when precious resources like Perazzo Meadows are protected.

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