Q-and-A: Perry Norris talks the Truckee Donner Land Trust’s successful 2015, what lies ahead
What is the Sierra Checkerboard?
When work began through the Sierra on the transcontinental railroad in 1863, the federal government granted railroad companies ownership of every other square mile of land, keeping the squares in between.
In the mountains, railroads held on to their private sections, while many public sections became part of the national forests.
Timber companies eventually acquired close to 75 percent of the private land, creating a checkerboard pattern of alternating private and public land across the central Sierra region.
The checkerboard ownership pattern that persists today presents significant conservation and land management challenges.
As population pressures increase, and economic changes make timber harvesting less profitable, timber companies are selling their scattered parcels for residential development and drastically impacting the Sierra landscape.
Roads cut to reach new homes destroy wildlife habitat, interrupt migration corridors, and degrade the quality of our rivers and streams.
Thus, the Land Trust’s Sierra Checkerboard Initiative is a plan to consolidate and protect the remnant checkerboard lands.
The program will establish a pattern of ownership that meets the human, economic, and ecological needs of the central Sierra.
Source: Truckee Donner Land Trust. Visit tdlandtrust.org to learn more.
TRUCKEE, Calif. — It’s been a banner year for the Truckee Donner Land Trust.
From its recent purchase of the historic Black Wall (a 10-acre climbing area on Donner Summit) to its acquisition of Coppins Meadow (a 153-acre parcel 15 miles north of Truckee), the TDLT was especially effective in its efforts to preserve and protect the Sierra’s open space in 2015 — a year that also marked the land trust’s 25th anniversary
With that in mind, the Sierra Sun sat down with Executive Director Perry Norris to talk about the land trust’s successful year, where it’s at now in preserving the Sierra checkerboard, and what’s on the horizon.
Q: The recent Black Wall purchase, what can you tell me about that?
Norris: It’s a very popular climbing destination on Donner Summit. Like a lot of our properties, if you follow the chain of command, it goes back to the railroad. All that stems from the land grants that President Lincoln made in 1863. The railroad owned it and then a gentleman bought it from the railroad and then it resold again, and we were able to buy the 12 acres that includes three popular climbing areas.
Q: The Black Wall purchase, what does that mean for the future of rock climbing at Donner Summit?
Norris: It means that it will stay the largest crag, and other crags will stay open in perpetuity. There’s always a threat with these lands — especially with an activity like rock climbing that’s perceived as high risk — that the land owner may get scared of the liability issues. And so I think in this case the landowner had been very climber friendly for a decade, and we finally reached terms with him to purchase it. And now the land trust owns the property in fee and the Access Fund holds the conservation easement that assures the climbing and the general public permanent access to that property.
Q: What makes Donner Summit one of the best places in the world to rock climb?
Norris: One, is the Yosemite-quality granite. The climbing on Donner Summit is textured, it has really great cracks, and it also has a wide span of climbs to match nearly any ability. So there’s great beginner climbs that are interesting and fun and there are state-of-the-art test pieces on the summit as well. It’s also in a close proximity; it’s an hour and 15 minutes from Sacramento, three hours from the Bay Area, an hour from Reno. So it’s positioned really well in the epicenter of a number of population areas, which is why it sees such heavy use.
Q: The Coppins Meadow purchase the land trust made this year, why was that important?
Norris: That was important because of the whole Sierra Nevada checkerboard pattern, as we call it. Coppins Meadow, it had a zoning that we saw as a high development threat; it was a recreational zoning that could’ve had a trailer park or a campground or other amenities like that. So we were really interested in picking it up to protect larger investments, such as Webber Lake in Lacey Meadows that we purchased in 2012, that’s about 3,000 acres. And then we did these conservation easements with Sierra Pacific Industries, that’s about 7,500 acres, so in this little Truckee sub-base we protected almost 17,000 acres. So this is real focal part of our organization’s mission, or it has been for the last few years.
The other story is development. Tahoe got built out and the next wave kind of spilled into the Martis Valley. And you have a number of new resorts, high-end subdivisions in the Martis Valley. And then when the Martis Valley kind of got a little more built out, it spilled into Truckee. And you’re seeing a number of new subdivisions come in and around Truckee, including the new proposed Canyon Springs. So we were kind of anticipating that the next wave of development would — working its way north from Tahoe — likely be in incorporated Nevada and Sierra counties. So that’s why we think these are so important; these go right into the heart of northern Sierra Nevada and given these properties there was a high development threat.
So the Coppins Meadow in and of itself, it wasn’t an A-plus project, but as a kind of a key centerpiece in an area that we’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in, it was critically important.
Q: Where is the land trust at now, versus where it wants to be, in terms of preserving the Sierra checkerboard?
Norris: I think there are still some key areas. The good news is, most of those are owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, who with our partners at the Trust For Public Land, I believe we have a great relationship with, so I think continuing to chip away at the Sierra checkerboard is very much in the next 10-year horizon for the organization.
The other side to that is, for instance, to point out an example is the (Sierra Pacific Industries Martis Valley West development) piece. So this has been somewhat controversial because SPI announced some plans to develop in the Tahoe basin and what we’re looking at doing is protecting this (northeastern) side of 267, which would then create this monstrous 50,000-acre continuous open space and natural lands all the way into the Toiyabe National Forest and then even into Gray Creek and into Nevada. So this will be a project that SPI is going through the permitting process to transfer development, which we support. And this is a very popular destination for mountain biking.
Our future is probably looking at key large holdings, most of them are owned by Sierra Pacific Industries. There are hundreds of acres behind Donner Lake and Cold Stream Canyon. There are a number of sections that are surrounded by Carpenter Valley that we currently have under contract. Those are real high priorities. It’s just a question of … SPI is in no hurry to sell those right now.
Q: During your time with the land trust, are there any one or two things you would’ve handled differently?
Norris: I think in a period of exponential growth of protecting properties, which really kind of started around 2006, and we did a series of major multimillion-dollar acquisitions. I think that we didn’t fully understand the stewardship responsibilities and the cost of managing those properties. I think we would’ve probably focused fundraising on those projects for stewardship as well as just for acquisition. I think there’s been some missed opportunities that got away in the early days when the organization was struggling to build its capacity to do large acquisitions, both in terms of a real estate transaction but also in terms of its ability to fundraise. I think that we’ve also, in some ways, we’ve almost been as lucky as we’ve been good.
… We have concentrated areas of our work: Martis Valley, Donner Lake, Donner Summit, the Little Truckee (River), the Truckee River. And I wish that I could truly claim that this was just absolute brilliant strategic thinking. The fact of it is that a lot that just came with luck. And we were in the right place at the right time. We have an extremely loyal donor base, people who care tremendously about the mountain, the character of our region as well as Truckee’s small-town feel. And also California passed a number of bond measures, going back to 1940, ’50, ’84 and now Prop 1 that in California provided a source of funding that heretofore was missing. We are also now the benefices of a Sierra Nevada conservancy. So the Sierra Nevada, which comprises about 22 percent of the state’s land mass, didn’t have representation in Sacramento with the legislature — and now we do.
Q: You mentioned missed opportunities, are there an examples that stick out?
Norris: I’d rather not say. I’d say a couple of them are now golf course communities (laughs).
Q: How important is it to have a community that is so passionate about preserving the land?
Norris: I think a lot of land trusts that work in the central valley or even in the Bay Area are envious of the donor base that we have. We have folks that they might not even live here full time, but they really identify Truckee and Donner Summit as their home. And they come up here to get away from urban experiences and very much want to enjoy the outdoors — ski, climb, bike, hike, run. They have huge pride and a huge sense of ownership in protecting our region.
Q: Where does 2015 rank in terms of successful years for the land trust?
Norris: I think it’s been a really good year. I think it’s been good year in terms of our stewardship and our management. We’ve invested heavily into the restoration of Van Norden Meadow up on Donner Summit. We’ve invested heavily into building a network of trails on the Royal Gorge property that we think will bolster the local economy. We’re in the process of working hard in designing a campground and recreational amenities at Webber Lake that we also own in fee. And we closed a number of smaller deals; they weren’t the several-thousand acres, but Coppins Meadow, Black Wall, a small parcel in the Martis Valley.
And I think the real cornerstone of our success is that in 2015 we are now under contract to purchase Carpenter Valley, which is probably one of the most pristine sub-alpine meadow systems in the northern Sierra. So that’s a big coup. Our work really kind of can move at glacial speed. So for instance, Carpenter Valley, I first visited the valley in 2002 and never imagined that we’d be able to purchase it. And just over time we’ve had a number of very important projects — Webber Lake, Royal Gorge, Carpenter Valley, Independent Lake — all come to fruition.
Q: What does 2016 and the next five years hold for the land trust?
Norris: I think for a lot of people, they just think that a land trust buys and protects land. And what we’re finding is, it does that, but it manages and cares and restores land as well. As an example, our stewardship budget for this year is three times larger than our operating budget. And that’s a combination of meadow restoration and studies, forestry and trials, and other recreational amenities such as campgrounds. I think 2016, -17, -18 we’ll be focused — 50 percent of our energy will be focused — on managing those properties, in some cases giving them some much needed ‘TLC’ because they’ve been neglected.
Particularly an issue around here is fire suppression. A lot of our forests right now are tinderboxes and way overstocked. We have acreages where there are 600 trees (per acre) and there ought to be 60 trees (per acre). And then we will continue to chip away at some smaller parcels — there’s a 168-acre parcel that we’re interested in in the Martis Valley, as well as the larger SPI parcel. One of the things we’d like to do is create kind of a trails plan up on Donner Summit in the climbing area now that we own Black Wall. And we have such a great strong partnership with the United States Forest Service. And I think fundraising for Carpenter Valley and completing that acquisition, which we’ll do in 2017, that’s a $10 million project. So we some heavy lifting to do to make sure that happens.
Q: What do you think people will be saying about the land trust in 2020?
Norris: Gosh, that’s a good question. I think that pretty much, I think they’ll say what they’d say in 2015. Which is we’re a fairly nimble organization and we’ve been very successful acquiring key properties and open spaces in this region. To give you an idea, if you drive up Old 40 on (Donner) Summit Canyon on a Wednesday in October, that trailhead will be packed with people. So we take a lot of pride and get a lot of gratification out of seeing the public enjoy these lands that for many, many decades, they’ve been closed to the public. Some properties such as Webber Lake had been closed to the public for almost 130 years, and we’re really excited about opening up these remarkable landscapes for the public to enjoy.
Q: How as the land trust evolved over its 25 years?
Norris: It’s actually kind of an intersecting story. We like to say that the land trust was created around a kitchen table at Donner Lake. That the absence of an open space district in eastern Placer, Nevada County really spurred the land trust and it started with buying 160 acres in Cold Stream Canyon. And it was an all-volunteer effort, extremely grassroots. And then it evolved essentially over time with developing and foraging really strong partnerships.
I think the growth of the land trust and its history and success very much resides in the partnerships that it’s established with a number of organizations. The Trust for Public Land, the Nature Conservancy, the Northern Sierra Partnership, the U.S. Forest Service, the state parks, the Truckee Trails Foundation, the Truckee River Watershed Council. I mean, and I apologize if I’m omitting anyone, those partnerships have really been instrumental in our success and our growth. And going back to 2002 when we did our first multimillion-dollar acquisition, which was Schallenberger Ridge. We basically didn’t have the capacity to do it alone so we enlisted the help of a national land trust and kind of worked shoulder-to-shoulder with them to get that done. And on almost every one of our major acquisitions, the partnerships that we’ve had were really the key to our success.