by Lisa Wallace, Executive Director

I’ve long remembered the article “The Tragedy of the Commons” by the ecologist Garrett Hardin (Science, 1968). The article focuses on overpopulation but the broader point is about how individuals acting from their self-interest can collectively destroy something they all need to prosper.

Hardin offers the example of a pasture to which herdsmen are invited to bring their cattle. Eager to improve their circumstances, the herdsmen feed as many cattle as possible. But overgrazing takes a progressive toll on the common pasture and it’s destroyed for everyone.

Perhaps we can redefine self-interest to recognize that preservation of commons is the best way to improve our circumstances.

It’s possible – and I know that because of the Middle Martis Creek Wetland Restoration project.

Middle Martis Creek is a mess. It impacts land managed by seven owners: water quality, habitat, trails and roads are all damaged. Each of these owners could have taken the undoubtedly simplier and perhaps less expensive path to improve their circumstances. They could have fixed only a small part – their individual part – of the problem. But seven piecemeal fixes would have taken a toll and only the roads would have been fixed. Water quality, habitat, and trails would have been left damaged.

Instead the seven land owners redefined self-interest and came together with the Truckee River Watershed Council (led by Beth Christman). Later this summer, we will all together restore Middle Martis Creek. We will distribute the creek flows and restore the creek’s channels. This will re-water approximately 50 acres of meadow, preserve wetlands, improve water quality, and protect Thompkins Memorial Trail, Sawmill Flat Road, and Highway 267.

Who are they? Caltrans, Northstar California, Northstar Community Services District, Truckee Donner Land Trust, Truckee Tahoe Airport District, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They have agreed to add value to the commons of water quality, habitat, and trails – moving beyond their individual needs.

P.S. The restoration work is funded by these partners as well as others who know the value of the commons: donors of the Truckee River Watershed Council , the Martis Fund, the Truckee Fund, Placer County, and the State of California.

Photo: From the reference of the woman standing in the creek, you can tell that the channel has eroded down several feet below the meadow grade.  The creek is also eroding further into the meadow – a process called “headcutting.” The channel and headcut erosion are damaging the meadow and the stream bed, and degrading water quality. Credit: Brian Hastings, Balance Hydrologics

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