Why Meadows Matter
The Feather River Watershed holds the largest wetland area in the Sierra Nevada and some of the largest montane meadow complexes. Besides their sheer size, these rare and important landscapes foster incredible biodiversity and ecological stability for the region. In the Sierra Nevada, wet meadows have outsized importance in terms of biodiversity they support, relative to the small portion of the landscape (<1%) they occupy.
Here at the Feather River Land Trust, we think it’s important to understand what wet meadows are and what role they play in the environment around us, so we can better advocate for and protect these places. Conserving the limited remaining wet meadows in the region is one of our top conservation priorities.
The science of meadows
The Feather River region is defined by expansive valleys that may look like large grasslands, yet many of these valleys contain ecologically rich wet meadows—freshwater marshes that occur in areas with limited drainage. A well-managed wet meadow is a very effective carbon sink and provides important ecosystem services to secure water resources and climate resilience.
When water collects in these meadows, excess nutrients are filtered out of the water in a process that both cleans the water and makes the meadows a great source for nourishment. Those nutrients create highly enriched and productive environments that support a wide array of plant and animal life. In the Feather River Watershed, meadows are home to impressive waterfowl populations, fish, and frogs and offer nesting grounds for diverse migratory bird species and watering grounds for a variety of mammals.
Pictured below, American White Pelicans, North American River Otters, and American Avocets are just some of the creatures that rely on the Feather River Watershed for food, habitat, and breeding grounds.
However, these ecosystems are also sensitive and often under threat of development and degradation. Human activities like construction and some farming practices on sensitive landscapes can contribute to significant loss of wet meadows. In turn, the animals that rely on wetland habitats to survive are at risk of becoming threatened populations.
Rare & important landscapes
An even rarer landscape in the region is the fen. Fens are peat-forming wetlands that do not get their nutrients from rain or snow but from indirect upstream sources like groundwater. Less acidic than bogs, fens support highly diverse populations of wildlife (1). Fens can be found in Feather River Watershed bottomlands, like at the Hollitz Ranch, a working landscape conserved in 2022 through a conservation easement between the landowner and FRLT.
Similar to wet meadows, fens have also been affected by growing cropland infrastructure and mining. While these practices may have short-term economic benefits, when conducted on these sensitive landscapes, they can quickly destroy a fen—converting it from a carbon sink to a source of carbon emissions. It can take up to 10,000 years for fens to naturally develop, making them incredibly unique and difficult to restore resources worthy of protection (2). That is why FRLT is working with visionary ranching families and other landowners to protect these rare landscapes.
Meadows and the climate crisis
Last year, FRLT’s Legacy Giving Coordinator and former Development Director, Karen Kleven, interviewed her neighbor Kyle Merriam, who is the Sierra Cascade Province Ecologist for the US Forest Service. Kyle informed us that healthy Sierra Nevada meadows store more carbon per unit than forests, and they act as a refuge for wildlife escaping drier and warmer habitats. Meadows play a key role in providing relief from extreme conditions driven by climate change, like megafires and extreme heat.
Kyle also shared that meadows can retain and store water from rain and snow like a sponge, releasing fresh water slowly throughout summer and fall. She also said that healthy meadows can act as fuel breaks during wildfires and help to provide lower water temperatures, creating healthier fisheries.
Most of California’s drinking and irrigated agricultural water comes from northern California watersheds, and the water storage abilities of meadows play an important role in our water supply. Functional meadows and wetlands improve groundwater recharge, reduce erosion, sustain water flows in drier seasons, and help reduce seasonal flooding in at-risk areas downstream. In this era of drought and water insecurity, these ecosystem functions are not to be taken for granted.
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Conserving meadows on working ag lands
There is still hope for the wet meadows and fens of our area. Conserving these lands and managing them wisely can provide healthy ecosystems for both humans and wildlife. Most of the wet meadows of the Feather River region are on privately owned agricultural lands and FRLT is working with forward-thinking landowners to protect these lands and the resources they hold with conservation easements. Ian Vogel, a wildlife biologist for US Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an article about the value of meadows, “you can graze and still have a healthy meadow. It just may require adaptive livestock management, such as alternating which meadows can be grazed to let disturbed vegetation regrow” (3).
A great example of this is the Home and 101 Ranches, owned by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), which together form one of the largest meadow complexes in the Sierra Nevada. FRLT, in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, completed a conservation easement on Home Ranch in 2021 (phase 1) and expects to complete conservation of 101 Ranch (phase 2) in early 2023. The easement prevents more intensive land uses on the meadow and encourages management of riparian pastures for improved stream bank conditions and riparian woody vegetation. These measures are expected to increase soil moisture, improve water quality, and return to more natural meadow-floodplain hydrologic dynamics.
What is FRLT doing to protect meadows?
As a local land trust, we work with willing landowners and partners to protect ecologically important private lands in the Feather River region. The majority of our land protection work focuses on securing conservation easements in the inter-mountain valleys, meadows, and wetland habitats that form the headwaters to the Feather River, the Sierra Nevada’s largest watershed.
In addition to working with private landowners, FRLT has directly purchased several important landscapes with ecologically rich wetland areas. The Sierra Valley Preserve, managed for public benefit and access, is in the heart of Sierra Valley, which contains the largest freshwater wetland complex in the Sierra Nevada. The preserve supports over 100 bird species and its wetlands form the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Middle Fork Feather River, which provides water to millions of Californians.
Together with you, we will continue to conserve and protect these rare but complex systems that deliver outsized benefits for people, wildlife, and the planet. Thank you to all our members and partners for your support in making this work possible.
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