It’s just shy of 9 am on a warm June morning. Cars pull into a dirt pull-off in Yosemite National Park along a large meadow surrounded by granite peaks and the scars of the 2013 Rim Fire. People arrive and hug as they reunite with old friends and colleagues and introduce themselves to new ones. The Sierra Meadows Partnership’s annual meeting is about to begin at Ackerson Meadow.
The Sierra Meadows Partnership (SMP) is a regional collaborative group that works to improve the resources, support, and efficacy around meadow restoration in the Sierra Nevada. This June, the group members met for their first annual meeting in three years at Ackerson Meadow in Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest. The plan: to tour Ackerson and learn about one of the largest meadow restoration projects in the Sierra Nevada. Nearly 60 people attended this year’s SMP meeting. Affiliations included the National Park Service, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, nonprofit groups, state agencies, land trusts and conservancies, and more. The purpose of this field tour was not only to learn about the Ackerson Meadow Restoration Project, but also to build connections, network, brainstorm new projects, and strengthen partnerships to enhance meadow restoration across the Sierra.
Ackerson Meadow was this year’s field trip destination because the project is a unique example of how large-scale restoration projects are born from meaningful collaboration. The project is led by American Rivers, Yosemite National Park, and the Stanislaus National Forest, and supported by a diverse team of stakeholders and consultants, most of whom first connected through the SMP. Ackerson has a rich history that stretches back before the arrival of European settlers, to when the Central Sierra Miwok and Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indian tribes would gather and use the abundant resources found in the area. It was homesteaded in the 19th century and a century of livestock grazing, ditch construction, and haying operations contributed to the meadow’s degradation. The meadow is substantial in size at 230 acres, with Yosemite-style granite domes rising from the north. It is home to many rare and endangered plant and wildlife species including the Willow Flycatcher, Great Grey Owl, and slender stem monkeyflower. Unfortunately, the combination of historic land uses at Ackerson resulted in massive ecological and hydrologic degradation, the centerpiece of which is a 3-mile-long gully, 15 feet deep and 100 feet wide, that drains this once vibrant wetland, robbing it of critical functions like groundwater storage, carbon sequestration, clean water supply, and wildlife habitat.
The restoration project at Ackerson is one of the largest meadow restoration projects attempted in the Sierra Nevada. The project includes filling the eroded gully with more than 150,000 cubic yards (15,000 dump trucks!) of soil and wood chips. This will allow the stream to spread across the meadow as it once did, rewatering 190 acres of lost or marginalized wetland habitats, improving water quality to the Tuolumne River system, increasing flood protections, and improving critical habitats for Ackerson’s diverse species.
The project embodies the goals and vision of the Sierra Meadows Partnership, which aims to restore 30,000 acres of Sierra Nevada meadows by 2030. The tour was alive with conversation and debate, while passionate attendees put their heads together in an idyllic setting. As the project leaders discussed the details of the restoration design, tour participants exchanged ideas about soil carbon, beaver dam analogs, and rare wildlife and vegetation in the area.
The SMP: Building Towards 30,000 Acres Together
In addition to being a resource group for partners interested in meadows across the Sierra Nevada, the SMP also conducts an annual survey of member organizations to track progress towards their overarching goal of restoring and protecting 30,000 acres of meadows by 2030. The surveys collect data on key metrics like total acreage, land ownership, restoration objectives and actions, target wildlife species, and projects completed every year.
In 2022, the SMP found that 89 projects, over 16,000 acres, have been completed or are in progress across the Sierra. Seventy of these projects, totaling 9,000 acres, are restoration projects—nine of which were completed in 2021, restoring nearly 400 acres. The others are part of conservation easement and research projects.
The US Forest Service is the primary landowner for meadow projects in the Sierra, almost half of these projects are happening on National Forest System lands. The National Park Service and private landowners also host a significant portion of meadow projects. Improving habitat for wildlife species is a key goal for most of these efforts and some of the most common target species include the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, willow flycatcher, Greater Sandhill Crane, bald eagle, and various native trout species.
Tracking trends in restoration methods is another key part of the survey, and this year channel fill, infrastructure improvements, revegetation, and beaver dam analogs were some of the most common techniques used to bring meadows back to life. These projects were most often funded by the California’s Wildlife Conservation Board, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, all of which have grant funding programs focused on these critical habitats.
The SMP’s tracking report and events like the Ackerson field tour inspire members of the SMP to learn from one another and share knowledge and expertise to address the ecological health of the Sierra Nevada. As the practice of meadow restoration continues to grow and change with our climate, the SMP’s members continue to learn, adapting their efforts in a changing world to restore these important ecosystems. Meadows are integral to Sierra Nevada watersheds, wildlife, water quality, and by restoring them we are bettering our environments and communities. After spending a day in a beautiful place like Ackerson meadow, with so many others who are passionate and dedicated to such important work in the Sierras, I felt inspired. Not only did I learn about the project and different meadow restoration practices, but I also felt hope for the great work that is happening and saw the passion, joy, and deep interest in all the efforts being made across the Sierras. After the tour finished and the dust settled, environmental advocates from the across the state hopped back in their cars and returned home with new connections and new ideas. Partnerships are powerful when driven by common purpose, and the Sierra Meadows Partnership exemplifies American Rivers’ collaborative and adaptive approach to restoration, reminding us that we are stronger when we work together.