Childs Meadow, a Climate-Smart Meadows Case Study
Project Background, Need, and Goals
Restoration to reverse the decline in meadow ecosystem services is a management priority in the Sierra Nevada region because of meadows’ high ecological value and the pervasiveness of degradation (NFWF 2010, Drew et al. 2016). Childs Meadow has exceptional potential to provide many ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, increases in water quality and storage, carbon storage, and recreational value. Lying at the ecologically unique intersection of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges, Childs Meadow forms the headwaters of Deer Creek, a regionally significant anadromous watershed. Deer Creek is one of only three watersheds that support threatened ESA- and CESA-listed spring-run Chinook salmon (NMFS 2014). It supports ESA-listed Central Valley steelhead and fall-run Chinook salmon (NMFS 2014). CDFW has identified Deer Creek as a priority for the recovery and preservation of anadromous fisheries in the Central Valley (Armentrout 1998). Childs Meadow has one of the largest populations of CESA-candidate Cascades frog south of the Pit River and breeding CESA-listed willow flycatcher and CESA-listed greater sandhill crane. It has numerous large, carbon-rich fens and at least eight CNPS-listed rare plants. The site is also fawning grounds and a migratory corridor for the Tehama deer herd. For these reasons, Childs Meadow has high potential to provide significant ecological benefits at local, landscape, and regional scales. It is identified as a high priority for multi-benefit restoration by the Sierra Meadows Prioritization tool (Vernon 2019).
Childs Meadow is in a degraded state, reducing its ability to provide these ecological benefits. The primary sources of degradation are over 100 years of livestock grazing and ditching, diversions, and other flow consolidation to accommodate grazing, roads, and timber harvest. These source problems have led to stream channel incision, active head cutting, conifer encroachment, alterations to stream flow, and damage desiccation of peat soils, which are impacting hydrologic function, habitat quality, climate resilience, and the meadow’s climate mitigation potential. The loss of beaver has further exacerbated these conditions. The Childs Meadow watershed burned at mixed severity in the Dixie Fire. The impacts of headwater degradation- especially in watersheds affected by high severity fire- may manifest downstream, reducing water quality for fisheries and human uses. Though Childs Meadow still provides ecological benefits, many have been diminished by its impaired condition, are at risk from continued degradation, and can be greatly enhanced through restoration.
In 2016, our team piloted a demonstration project to test a new approach to restoring Sierra Meadows. We restored the form and function of 30 acres of Childs Meadow through installation of beaver dam analogs, improved grazing management, and revegetation (Yarnell 2015; Yarnell et al. 2020). In 2019, the project team received funding from CDFW to take lessons learned from this pilot to scale by making plans to restore, when combined with a Timber Harvest Plan (THP), the entire Collin’s Pine Childs Meadow property.
Our project goals are to restore and promote natural hydrological, biological, and geomorphic processes of Childs Meadow to:
- increase meadow resilience to climate change and other stressors,
- improve habitat for wildlife, fish, and plants,
- increase the carbon storage capacity of the meadow.
These goals will be achieved through restoration actions associated with process-based subgoals and quantified objectives specific to riparian, fen and discharge slope meadows, and tributaries within the surrounding uplands (see Attachment I for details). Major construction activities (e.g., mechanical channel fill, road decommissioning) are limited and focus on eliminating large rectifiable source problems (e.g., deep fen incisions, impairments to flow) and modifying human infrastructure to increase lateral and longitudinal connectivity and increase the exchange of surface and groundwater (Al-Chokhachy et al. 2016, Raiter et al. 2018).
Proposed actions include installation of livestock exclusion fencing to protect sensitive fens and soils; decommissioning and recontouring roads to restore natural drainage patterns; eliminating ditches and incised channels in fens and discharge slope meadows that are currently capturing and transporting groundwater offsite; and re-dispersing flows concentrated by highway culverts (Chambers and Miller 2011). We will further address localized impacts from source problems and recover ecological processes through beaver dam analogs (BDAs) in floodplains, post-assisted log structures (PALS) in transport reaches, and revegetation of riparian and fen habitats, and removal of conifers that have encroached into the meadow footprint.
Once implemented, the proposed project will confer benefits to multiple threatened and endangered wildlife, fish, and plant species, provide water quality and quantity benefits, and improve soil health while increasing net carbon storage. Childs Meadow has the potential to support upwards of 20 willow flycatcher territories, which would represent a 10% increase in the greater Sierra population. Our restoration actions will expand and enhance breeding habitat for sandhill cranes. The project will restore an important migration corridor for Tehama deer and for other wildlife seeking refugia in the higher elevation forests of the adjacent Lassen Park. Restoration could realize a more than four-fold increase in suitable habitat for Cascades frog (Pope et al. 2014). Restoration will reduce turbidity and water temperatures – especially in a post-Dixie fire landscape and it will increase flood attenuation and increase late season flows, all of which have the potential to improve downstream habitat quality for threatened anadromous salmonids. Improvements in water quantity and quality may also confer benefits to downstream human communities who use these waters for agriculture, drinking, and recreation. Our project will provide improved climate refugia for myriad wildlife who seek out wet meadows during the dry hot summer months and during and following large high severity fires. Our project will engage the local community, providing experiential learning and hands-on involvement in restoration. We will share lessons learned across the Sierra Meadow restoration community to help increase the efficacy of meadow restoration in California.
Our project is intended to buffer Childs Meadow and its adjacent uplands against climate impacts by enhancing their hydrologic connectivity and balance, a crucial component to the resilience of headwater wetlands. By restoring stream channel processes, improving floodplain connectivity, and increasing surface and sub-surface water connections with the adjacent hillslopes and uplands, we anticipate that Childs Meadow will become wetter and greener, slowing groundwater release through the spring and early summer, and sustaining surface water into the late summer and fall for in situ and downstream benefits. In a warming climate, restoring hydrologic function and water tables may be insufficient to ensure meadows remain wet through the dry season. Thinning of the uplands adjacent to the meadow through the THP, combined with the ecological benefits of the mixed severity burn from the Dixie Fire, will enhance surface water contributions to the meadow and downstream, helping to ameliorate future predicted drying. The rewetting and thinning will also increase the resiliency of the forest adjacent to the meadow, and its carbon stores, by reducing the risk of future high severity fire. Restoration will also help protect the carbon-rich peat soils by increasing the duration they are saturated. Peat soils and their carbon stores are vulnerable to rapid and unrecoverable loss, and thus protecting and restoring meadows featuring these important soils is critical for climate mitigation. Improved resiliency of this meadow system will in turn reduce climate-related exposures for the plants, wildlife, and fish that rely on the meadow. We have integrated climate-smart restoration principles as a central component of our planning process to ensure that restoration outcomes will not only be realized but are more likely to be resilient to a range of future climatic conditions (Vernon et al. 2019b). By engaging the local community in implementation, we will further galvanize local support for watershed restoration and inspire the next generation of meadow stewards, a key component of climate resilience.