Patty Brissenden Honored by Sierra Organizations for Outstanding Leadership in the Sierra

Photo of Patty Brissenden (far left) at a recent reception honoring Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s 20th Anniversary, pictured with (left to right) husband John Brissenden, Senator Brian Dahle, and Jim Branham (former Director of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.

The Sierra Fund, May 17, 2024

On April 16th, The Sierra Business CouncilSierra Nevada Alliance, and The Sierra Fund honored Patty Brissenden for her amazing accomplishments benefiting the Sierra Nevada. This is not a short blog! Patty’s list of victories and accomplishments benefiting the Sierra are many. She is not a shooting star – but rather a mighty comet lighting the Sierra skies with her impacts.

The beginning of Patty’s passion for the Sierra. Patty and her husband John were drawn to the Sierra and acquired a “run-down” resort when they were raising four kids and did not even have the $1,500 to their names. Patty and John then turned that resort into an internationally appreciated resort and famous institution in the Sierra Nevada – Sorensen’s Resort in Hope Valley, CA. As you read on to learn of Patty’s many outstanding efforts and victories – remember this was all done while building up and running a resort full-time.

In 1983 – Patty co-founded Friends of Hope Valley, a community group in the least populated county in CA, Alpine County – and then proceeded to:

  • Successfully prevented the construction of a Sacramento Municipal Utility District to Sierra Pacific Power Transmission Line that would have cut a massive destructive swath through the entire length of Hope Valley and region of the Sierra. Today the lights are still on and power quite reliable for both utilities, without this poorly planned project.
  • Led the charge on a series of actions that saved the Hope Valley area in perpetuity from development and misuse.
    • She inspired the Trust for Public Land to acquire 25,000 acres in Hope Valley and recruited her friend, then Congressional Budget Chair, Leon Panetta, to champion and secure $21M from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for this acquisition.
    • During the campaign, she provided compelling testimony before Congress and invited Sorensen Resort guests to contact Congress to save Hope Valley.
    • Patty used her network to rope in Jerry Meral, the then Executive Director of the Planning and Conservation League, to get involved. When California passed the 1988 Parks and Wildlife Bond, with Jerry Meral as the lead author, it included $4M for acquisition to complete the $25M needed to Save Hope Valley.
    • After the acquisitions were completed, these lands were passed to the US Forest Service and the CA Fish and Game for ongoing ownership/stewardship. This protected the headwaters of the Carson River for the benefit of water quality, wildlife, and recreation.
    • In total, these efforts protected Hope Valley, Faith Valley, additional plots of land adjacent to Hope Valley, as well as some acreage as far-flung as Mono County.
    • For many in the Sierra – Hope Valley is a place where we enjoy the lush, inspiring landscape of meadows, streams, mountains, plant life, and wildlife. We believe these meadows have been important ancestral lands for the Washoe tribes for centuries. And we can testify that the bears, owls, beavers, and myriad of other non-human residents thrive to this day in this vast landscape. Thank you, Patty Brissenden, for your critical role in this effort.

But read on – this is only the start of the Patty Brissenden comet trail.

Around 1987-89, while securing funds for Hope Valley, Patty worked with Frank Wells (whose fortune came from Disney fame) to investigate issues of the Sierra Nevada. Frank Wells and David Brower (some may remember David as an Environmental Warrior extraordinaire) met with Patty several times to understand the issues and potential solutions to protect the entire Sierra. Frank and his foundation, Environment Now, worked with Patty to help organize the Sierra Now conferences. From these events, a report was issued with recommendations for protecting and restoring the Sierra.

One of the recommendations from the “Sierra Now” gatherings was, that there needed to be an organization dedicated, not to just one place at a time in the region, but instead, one dedicated to the entire Sierra Nevada. This Sierra Now effort, that Patty helped lead, resulted in the establishment of the Sierra Nevada Alliance in 1993 with Patty as co-founding Board President. The Sierra Nevada Alliance’s mission was, and continues to be, to protect and restore the Sierra Nevada. At the time, under this newly-formed organization, conservation groups up and down the Sierra banded together to exchange knowledge and tactics to save their own special places, to attract resources for the benefit of the entire network (later resulting in the founding of the Sierra Nevada AmeriCorps Partnership), and also to unite the network together in advancing state and/or federal support for the needs of the Sierra.

Around this same time, Patty fed information on the many challenges facing the Sierra to Tom Knudson, who was a Sacramento Bee Reporter. Tom took this amazing font of information from Patty and other sources and turned it into a Pulitzer Prize-winning set of articles called “Sierra in Peril”. This series of articles elevated the entire Sierra region for the first time onto the statewide public map as needing and deserving of resources and support.

The Patty Brissenden Comet Trail continues across the sky! Simultaneous to all this Sierra Now and Sierra Nevada Alliance work, Patty restoked the local fires to save her backyard once again. This time her sights turned to protecting the undammed East Fork of the Carson River. At one point in the campaign there had been a deal struck with Governor Deukmejian and some advocates to do a 12-year ‘study bill’, rather than simply designate the river with Wild and Scenic status. This choice was made out of a fear of backlash from Western Nevada ranchers. But, in a testament to Patty’s political savvy,  on the way to the hearing on the issue in Sacramento, she ran into another Sorensen’s contact, Legislator John Garamendi, and recruited him, right there in the hallway, as a champion to get CA Wild and Scenic status. Patty also recruited the local tourism office to express the economic importance of saving this river for the local economy. Thanks to her efforts, along with help from other advocates, the East Fork of the Carson River was designated Wild and Scenic by the CA legislature in 1989-90.

About this same time in the early 90’s, a group of local diverse stakeholders in Plumas County decided to stop the Spotted Owls vs Loggers war in their neck of the woods and craft a collaborative plan to create more sustainable logging efforts that could also protect the environment. This group was named the Quincy Library Group. Patty thought this was a massive step forward in timber management and she brought a copy of the Quincy Library Group plans to a meeting with then Vice President, Al Gore, in the Clinton Administration to ask for his support. From this relationship, Patty helped build bridges between the Clinton Administration, US Forest Service, and others, to advance the Quincy Library Group’s (QLG) local collaborative model to shape timber management. While QLG faced many challenges, this was one of the first local collaborative land management models in the Sierra and in the country. Many lessons were learned, and many other collaborative land management efforts began to spring up post-QLG throughout the Sierra. This marked the beginning of a shift away from the prevailing ‘conservation versus the economy’ battles in the Sierra Nevada to looking for collaborative solutions that recognized the economy, environment, and community were inextricably linked.

From this foray into forest policy, Patty went on to walk Congressional halls and work to disengage funding for rural schools from annual logging fees – which had been based on acre-feet of timber sold. The wild swings of the timber sales year to year made it exceedingly difficult for rural schools to budget. Patty got the Superintendent of Alpine County Schools and others to join her in this effort. She helped create a new approach to more stable funding for rural schools. Patty recruited Congressman George Miller and Senator Barbara Boxer as champions, and together they secured a more sustainable funding model for rural schools decoupled from the timber sale ups and downs.

Then in 1996, Patty was appointed to the first Tahoe Summit as a representative for Al Gore. Bringing her knowledge and experience to this new collaborative, she supported Keeping Tahoe Blue and transferring land back to the Washoe Tribe at Meeks Bay – a culturally important ancestral land.

In 2001, Patty was invited by Shawn Garvey and Izzy Martin to serve on The Sierra Fund Board of Directors in its founding years. For many of those years, she served as Board President. Under her board leadership, The Sierra Fund worked to leverage over $10M to local conservation efforts, launched campaigns that won a moratorium on harmful suction dredge mining in CA, and reformed the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act to better protect public health and wildlife in the Sierra from legacy mining pollution resulting from the Gold Rush.

In 2004, Patty engaged in efforts to establish a state conservancy for the Sierra. Once again, the stardust of Patty’s comet trail was seminal in turning the tide from decades of past failed attempts to ultimate success in establishing a Sierra Nevada ConservancyPatty recognized, that to establish an agency for the rural Sierra, a strong urban champion was needed to help lead the effort. Patty had previously succeeded in this recipe of urban legislators (Garamendi, Boxer, Gore, etc.) becoming champions for the Sierra– and this time she turned her sights on John Laird. Patty had known John from when he was an analyst in the Santa Cruz administrative office, during the time when her husband, John Brissenden, in his early career, was living in the Santa Cruz area as a VISTA volunteer and had met John Laird. In 2004, Patty took by-then Senator Laird to lunch and convinced him to author legislation that would become, in coordination with Assemblymember Tim Leslie, the Laird-Leslie Sierra Nevada Conservancy Act, which was passed and signed into law. While many hands were involved in establishing the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Patty’s engaging John Laird was a major factor in the legislation passing.

In the years since the Conservancy was passed, it has funded over 589 projects promoting wildfire and climate resilience, conserving natural and working lands, and improving outdoor access. The agency has given out more than $200M in grants over 20 years.

Then, in 2023, Patty joined many others in stopping the Sirens in Minden – a horrible legacy of continuing to sound the sirens daily at 6 pm to announce a racist sundown curfew. Until 1974, anyone who was not white had to leave Minden and neighboring Gardnerville at the end of every day or face dire consequences. A 1917 county ordinance mandated that Native Americans needed to be out of the town’s limits by 6:30 p.m. Sirens were historically daily blared at 6 pm so that “persons of a particular race, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, or color to leave the town or township within the county by a certain time”.  Even after the curfew ordinance was revoked in 1974, the continued siren sounding each day was an understandably emotionally painful reminder. Patty joined with many others in the community voicing her opposition to the Siren, supporting passage of Nevada legislation to end the practice statewide – and then working to get Minden to abide by the legislation. In 2023, the town council finally agreed that the Minden Siren was no longer going to sound off in the evening.

Patty has played pivotal and foundational roles in moving local, state, and federal efforts with significant impacts for the Sierra.

  • Patty’s intelligence and ability to grasp complicated issues and then convey them in compelling ways has recruited reporters and multiple leaders to become champions for the Sierra.
  • Patty’s sophisticated political acumen has shaped successful strategies to get results at the county, state, and federal levels.
  • Patty’s persistence and tireless effort, from one victory to the next, has created decades of accomplishments.
  • Patty’s charm and ability to build meaningful and lasting relationships with others has created ‘legions’ of Sierra champions that stayed with the Sierra for years.

It is a unique and powerful combination of talents, skill, intelligence, charm, and drive – truly creating an impressive comet trail shining bright amongst our Sierra stars.

The Sierra Fund Staff and Board are inspired by Patty, and we hope you join us in appreciating what one remarkable woman has done for decades to benefit our incredible region. May we all inhale some of her comet dust to continue building on this legacy to pass on to future generations a vibrant, resilient, just, and amazing region of the Sierra Nevada.

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