Shared solutions to protect shared values

  • Bowling Ball Beach in Northern California. Credit: Matt McIntosh / NOAA ONMS.

The California Headwaters Partnership

The California Headwaters Partnership is focused on restoring and enhancing function in the primary watersheds for California, the watersheds of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains, which drain into the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. The partnership is building upon and unifying existing collaborative efforts in the region to identify and map areas for conservation, restoration, increased carbon storage, and maintenance needs. Another major goal is enhancing forest resilience to reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire and allow a more natural fire regime through reduction of uncharacteristic fuel loads.

Figure 1. Tree mortality in the Sierra National Forest, CA. Credit: Steve Dunsky, US Forest Service
Figure 1. Tree mortality in the Sierra National Forest, CA. Credit: Steve Dunsky, US Forest Service

A century of fire suppression and other land management practices have led to overgrown forests. When coupled with a historic five-year drought, this has produced conditions conducive to invasive insect infestation, resulting in more than 66 million dead trees in California. This crisis has shifted funding and resources from watershed restoration efforts to tree mortality response. As the number of dead and dying trees increases and expands to new areas, the region's vulnerability to fire increases. Resources at all levels of government are inadequate to address long-term restoration.

Next Steps

In the future, the partnership will be focused on implementing the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program (WIP), which is a complementary effort. Implementation of the WIP will include:

Figure 2. The California Headwaters Partnership map.
Figure 2. The California Headwaters Partnership map.
  • Completing watershed assessments on all lands, developing metrics, and beginning pilot watershed analyses.
  • Coordinating and communicating work products and progress with all partners
  • Developing the WIP information hub and using it as a communication tool


The California Headwaters Partnership produced a number of products over the timeframe of the Resilient Lands and Waters (RLW) Initiative to showcase the collaborative efforts in the region that are addressing climate impacts at the landscape scale. These products include websites hosted by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC), a webinar, handouts, and an Esri Story Map. All RLW products developed and described above are available on the USFS and SNC websites. The process used to identify and quantify forest and watershed restoration opportunities will continue to be organized through the WIP. Additional products have been developed through the WIP, including watershed assessments across all ownerships and a WIP regional strategy


  • Scale and scope of the need for watershed restoration.
  • Lack of operational infrastructure, including wood processing plants and biomass energy plants, to process material from forest management and restoration activities.
  • Lengthy, inefficient environmental planning process to address current needs. Lack of capacity, expertise, and agreement to shift to contracted National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) planning to meet increased demand.
  • Development of standardized metrics for forest and watershed restoration across all lands.
  • Managing for resiliency in landscapes prone to threat of large, intense wildfires and associated risk to water supplies, carbon storage, air quality, infrastructure, and habitat.
  • Lack of agreement on management approaches, objectives, and science among diverse stakeholders with different organizational missions and processes.

Lessons Learned

The California Headwaters Partnership values collaboration and coordination among partners and the public. Engagement of private landowners, tribes, nongovernmental organizations, and agencies must be a continuing emphasis in large-landscape restoration. Communication is crucial, and how we say things can be as important as what we say. Other lessons learned include:

  • A multi-year perspective is needed to reach large-landscape restoration goals.
  • Organizations may need to shift the traditional way of doing business to meet changing scope, complexity, and needs of forest and watershed management.
  • Funding new approaches, implementing new contracting mechanisms, and building local capacity are essential to increasing the pace and scale of restoration across all land ownerships.

Best Practices

Co-leading large-landscape restoration efforts creates the best products and the best outcomes. Other best practices include:

Figure 3. Meadow Restoration Training hosted by American Rivers, Plumas Corp., and the USFS, with support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Bella Vista Foundation.  Credit-American Rivers.
Figure 3. Meadow Restoration Training hosted by American Rivers, Plumas Corp., and the USFS, with support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Bella Vista Foundation. Credit-American Rivers
  • Use Lessons Learned: Coordinate and collaborate early in areas where forest and watershed health are vulnerable to climate change and other disturbance threats. For example, establish tree mortality taskforces in counties susceptible to future mortality. In addition, use all management tools, including managed fire, to reduce fuel loads, decreasing the risk of large, intense wildfires.
  • Training Opportunities to Improve "Soft" Skills and Build Expertise: Provide training to respond to changing needs. Examples include the Forest Service "Leaders as Conveners" training for natural resource managers and partners, and the Forest Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation American Rivers Meadow Restoration Training, which teaches technical and soft skills to increase and leverage additional work through partnerships.
  • Tell the Story: Share information in multiple forums and formats, using innovation and technology. The Esri Story Map tool was used to develop the California Headwaters Partnership Story to describe the current situation and efforts underway to increase the pace and scale of restoration.