Something good has finally come from the dark days of 2000 and 2001, when Californians suffered a series of rolling electrical blackouts as free-market high jinks wreaked havoc on the state's electrical supply.
Eleven years ago this month, caught between manipulated prices and state regulations controlling its rates, utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric Company filed for bankruptcy. As part of the settlement it eventually reached with the California Public Utilities Commission - after a contentious back-and-forth - PG&E agreed to conservation easements that will protect 140,000 acres of watershed land it holds for hydroelectric operations. The utility will retain at least half of those acres, and the rest will likely go to public, tribal, and environmental groups.
In November, the nonprofit organization established to manage the process began announcing plans for some of the higher-profile parcels - including lands near Lake Spaulding that would go to the University of California Center for Forestry. Insiders expect the coming months to bring a flurry of recommendations about who should become the stewards of 43,000 acres along the western edge of the Sierra Nevada and in northern parts of the state, given that funding for the Pacific Forest & Watershed Lands Stewardship Council is set to end in 2013. It has already made recommendations for 27,000 acres, but none has been finalized.
"Almost all the properties are in watershed areas," explains Allene Zanger, the Stewardship Council's executive director, "so they're important not just in terms of habitat but also in terms of being the source of water for the entire state." Zanger added that protecting or improving public access to the lands would bring "tremendous" recreational value to state residents.
PG&E is scoring PR points in news reports about the easement project, but the company had to be pushed to conserve the properties in question. It had been looking to cash out on the land holdings. Terrie Prosper, chief spokesman for the PUC, noted with satisfaction that the settlement agreement removes "forever that possibility," replacing "the specter of loss of public control with the promise of perpetual public access."
Longtime Sierra Club volunteer Donald Rivenes of Nevada City said that the properties "are very good for hiking and recreation." Many of the lands for which recommendations have yet to be announced open onto beloved preserves, including the Emigrant Wilderness Area and Grouse Lakes forestland.
Rivenes says one unanswered question is whether the remaining land will go to federal, rather than state, foresters. The Sierra Club favors the U.S. Forest Service's tougher logging restrictions and argues that the federal government is in a better position to hold PG&E liable for any changes to the land.