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Sierra looks at its future

SONORA -- The Sierra Nevada still can yield riches, people meeting here Wednesday said, even if they aren't the big logs and gold nuggets of the past.

The Sierra Business Council organized a conference to highlight its ideas for ventures that could protect the environment and provide jobs.

That could mean culling small trees from forests to reduce the fire risk and provide fuel to power plants. It could mean luring businesses that, thanks to the Internet, no longer need to have their employees in one place. It could mean buying from small farms in the region rather than distant producers.

"The idea that, somehow, our environment and our economy are in conflict is a mistaken notion," said David Mattocks, president of the Truckee-based council.

The conference, which drew about 80 people to Sonora Opera Hall, is one of several that the council is holding around the Sierra this month.

The group presented an update of its Sierra Wealth Index, which has measured economic, social and other indicators since 1996. It said the mountain range's biggest asset could be the water in its snowpack and reservoirs, irrigating an estimated $18 billion worth of crops in the Central Valley each year. The Sierra also is a favorite place for recreation and retirement homes for people from the valley and elsewhere.

But the report says some of the indicators within the range are not good: Housing prices are too high for many young people. Jobs for them are in short supply with the decline of logging and other traditional industries. The population is older than in the valley and statewide, meaning schools could lose funding because of falling enrollment.

"We need to try to diversify our economy," said George Segarini, president and chief executive officer of the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce. "I'm not complaining about tourism. It's just that we need to diversify to get some of the high-paying jobs."

The report dealt with the

12 counties entirely within the Sierra, including Tuolumne,

Calaveras and Mariposa. It noted that their total population, about 819,000, could top 1 million by 2020.

That's a far smaller number of people than in the valley, but in the Sierra, the vast majority of land is federal and unavailable for development.

The council urged compact development, such as putting residences above storefronts in town cores.

"It gets you work force housing in walkable communities, so we felt it was a development tool that our range should be familiar with," said Steven Poncelet, the group's vice president of operations and development.

The report notes that about a third of Sierra workers commute to jobs in another county, including Stanislaus and others in the valley.

It says the Sierra continues to do well in tourism, construction and retail, along with health care and other services for its aging population. It notes that pensions and investments are a bigger part of income here than in other parts of the state.

Wages are a shrinking part of the mix. This is in part because of the greatly reduced logging industry, but Poncelet said the current level still provides some jobs.

He called for "selective thinning" of forests rather than the high-volume logging that took place through most of the past century.

But Melinda Fleming, executive director of the pro-logging Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment, said that would not be enough.

"In order to get our forests in any kind of shape to resist fires, we'll have to do it aggressively initially and then maintain the openness," she said.

The report says healthy forests would absorb a lot of carbon dioxide, believed to be one of the main causes of global warming. Under a trading system emerging around the world, forest managers might be paid for this effort by companies that fail to reduce their carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel.

The report says new employers could be drawn to the Sierra by its relatively well-educated population and natural beauty. But it warned that poorly planned development could diminish wildlife habitat, old-town charm and other assets.

Sonora attorney Kate Powell Segerstrom, past chairwoman of the council's board of directors, said she likes the report's emphasis on natural, social and economic wealth.

"There are people in Tuol-umne County who are really trying to close the loop and innovate in all three," she said.

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