Love of the land |

Love of the land

David Bunker/Sierra Sun Attilio Genasci stands at his Sierra Valley cattle ranch moments before signing a 500-acre conservation easement option, which will preserve his property as a cattle ranch in the future.

At 95 years old, Attilio Genasci still works the 500-acre Sierra Valley cattle ranch he has lived on nearly all of his life. On Friday, by signing a conservation easement option, he started the process that will ensure that his property remains a ranch centuries from now, no matter how strong development pressures become.

Friday was Genasci’s 95th birthday, a fitting day for the option signing, since it had been a longtime goal for him and his deceased wife, Angie. To Genasci, the ranchland is sacred, not only because it has been in the family for nearly 100 years, but because his wife’s ashes are spread on the pasture behind the house.

“That’s why it was very important for me to get an easement on this land,” said Genasci. “I didn’t want anyone to cover over her ashes with asphalt.”

Many believe that Genasci is the oldest working cattleman in California. Over his 95 years, he has seen California’s largest alpine valley slowly develop from singletrack dirt roads in the early 1900s to today’s highways and towns.

But the Sierra Valley’s 130,000 acres are still only lightly populated. Just up state Route 89 north of Truckee, the Valley stretches out in an expansive sea of green, dotted black by clusters of grazing cattle. Meandering creeks snake through the meadowland, purifying the water of the Feather River watershed that accounts for around 60 percent of the state’s drinking water.

That is what the Sierra Business Council saw seven years ago, when it identified the Sierra Valley not only as an important ranching area, but a vital resource for habitat and water quality. The council also noted that with its proximity to Reno and Tahoe, the valley would likely come under residential development pressures quicker than expected.

“If you look at California you know that flat, drainable land will eventually be looked at for residential development,” said Sierra Business Council President Jim Sayer. “Ranchers are acting now instead of waiting for the tide to come in.”

Seven years ago, Genasci met in his kitchen with Sierra Business Council representatives to discuss preserving the ranching tradition of the valley. Now, efforts by the business council, California Rangeland Trust and private ranch owners throughout the valley have brought the coalition to the verge of obtaining easements on 25,000 acres of valley ranchland.

The conservation effort initiated by the Sierra Business Council is an attempt to reach a “critical mass” of preserved ranchland so that the Sierra Valley will remain a ranch-based economy. The theory is that if ranches are subdivided one by one into housing developments, the Sierra Valley’s farming and ranching infrastructure Ð such as feed stores and equipment shops Ð will collapse as it slowly loses the support of the ranching community.

But the environmental benefit of a ranching culture in the Sierra Valley is just as important as its economic structure.

“We believe when you protect the ranches you are also protecting landscape, open space and habitat, as well as the community infrastructure” said Nita Vail, executive director of the California Rangeland Trust, the organization that will hold the Genasci ranch easement.

Over the last several years, conservation easements have become popular with ranchers who want to continue ranching their land, but need the working capital that the easement provides to make ranching profitable enough to resist the pressure to sell land to developers.

For some, the idea of signing a document that bars residential development forever is frightening. But for the Genasci’s, that is exactly what they wanted.

“For me, perpetuity has become a wonderful concept,” said Jim Genasci, Attilio’s son. “This has allowed me to continue ranching for the rest of my life.”

From the Genasci property you can look south to the mountains that rise from the valley, and east to the Plumas County line Ð and all of the property is either under a conservation easement or in the process of obtaining one.

For Attilio, the achievement is comforting. He remembers his wife looking out the window onto the valley before she died and urging him to preserve it as she saw it that day.

“This is my church. This is my cathedral,” Attilio said, recalling his wife’s words.

But Attilio, like many others gathered at the ranch, knows that efforts to preserve the ranching heritage of the valley are not complete.

“I think we’re at the crossroads now to save the valley Ð the floor of the valley Ð for future generations,” he said.

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