District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan could barely contain her emotion while praising a recently signed 10-year deal between the U.S. Forest Service and Tuolumne County that has potential to increase the pace and scale of restoration projects in the Stanislaus National Forest.

The chairwoman of the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors fought back tears while explaining how the master stewardship agreement approved Dec. 19 was one of the most gratifying accomplishments of her five-year tenure on the board.

“It’s hard to state in words the importance of what this is going to do,” Brennan said.

Master stewardship agreements, authorized by the U.S. Congress in 2003, allow the Forest Service and a partner to identify high-priority projects and let the partner carry out the projects over the course of 10 years.

The Forest Service provides 80 percent of funding for the projects, while the partner pays for 20 percent through grant funding, in-kind contributions, or other potential sources.

Though the county is lead partner in the agreement on paper, much of the heavy lifting will be done by the 24-member collaborative group called Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions. The group couldn’t formally enter the agreement, however, because it’s not a legal entity.

Formed in 2010, the group, also known as YSS, includes a broad range of interests including the county, environmental organizations, logging companies, mining companies, industry associations, tribal representatives and more.

The group jumped into action following the 2013 Rim Fire that destroyed 257,000 acres mostly in the Stanislaus National Forest and helped push for post-fire salvage logging projects.

Under the agreement, YSS members will contribute to the development of projects. Only projects that receive consensus among the group will move forward. The county intends to subcontract with Tuolumne River Trust, a nonprofit organization and a member of YSS, for project management, planning and fundraising.

District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce referred to the deal as a “huge milestone for the Forest Service, for the board, for YSS, and all the people involved in natural resources industries and environmentalism.”

Chris Trott, chairman of YSS and managing partner of CT Bioenergy Consultation in Twain Harte, said the agreement will reduce reliance on the Forest Service’s limited budget that’s increasingly being diverted to fighting massive wildfires.

“We have to follow all of the same rules and regulations, but it will allow private companies to do the work,” Trott said. “Our hope is we’ll be able to retain existing jobs and forest-product businesses, but also increase jobs.”

Scott Tangenberg, deputy supervisor for the Stanislaus National Forest, said he isn’t aware of any other master stewardship agreements between the federal agency and a county government for projects that encompass an entire county.

Such an agreement was approved in 2016 with the Upper Mokelumne River Watershed Authority in Calaveras County, which Tangenberg said has attracted “hundreds of thousands of additional dollars” for forest restoration projects there.

“Our goal will be to bring millions of additional dollars of investment to Tuolumne County,” Tangenberg said. “Although it doesn’t cut red tape, it does encourage investment.”

The deal was hammered out over three months beginning in September.

District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt said it has been more than four years since the Rim Fire was fully contained and it has now become the fourth-largest wildfire in California’s recorded history. The deadly Thomas Fire that raged in Southern California earlier this month is now the state’s largest on record at more than 273,000 acres.

Hanvelt said the agreement gives the county an opportunity to be a model for the state in how forests are managed.

“The sad part is, we haven’t been able to do anything until now,” Hanvelt said of projects to reduce the threat of wildfire. “This (agreement) gives us the mechanism to move forward.”

John Buckley, of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, is a member of YSS and said he’s open minded about the possible benefits the agreement could have for the forest.

Buckley stated in an email that it was frustrating to hear a top regional Forest Service official flatly tell YSS during a field trip last summer that the agency simply doesn’t have the staffing or resources to do more than is currently being done.

Despite being hopeful about the agreement’s potential, Buckley stated his center has “clear concerns” that the county has “never shown interest in environmental protection, but has primarily pushed for more logging, more jobs and more economic benefits from forest projects.”

However, Buckley stated his center and other environmental groups in YSS are willing to give the county a chance.

“Unless YSS gives the (agreement) a chance, we will never know if it might work,” he stated. “So for the conservation groups, this is a matter of showing trust not only in Tuolumne County, but also in the rest of YSS to ensure that the outcome is balanced and fair.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.