Making moves on the Sierra checkerboard |

Making moves on the Sierra checkerboard

Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunTruckee Donner Land Trust Executive Director Perry Norris contemplates his next move in the battle to unite public lands within the vast checkerboard of private holdings in the Northern Sierra.

Draped like a net across the northern Sierra Nevada, a distinct pattern, imperceptible to the casual viewer, could play a vital role in the future of the Truckee-Tahoe area.Called the Sierra checkerboard, the pattern of land ownership divides every-other square mile into public and private ownership, hence the name.Created more than a century ago to help the Transcontinental Railroad develop a route over the mountains, it now leaves the U.S. Forest Service and other government entities in a difficult place for land management and fire fighting.This is a really looming and daunting environmental threat, said Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust.But Norris land trust, the Forest Service, Trust for Public Land and other conservation groups are working to unify the checkerboard by acquiring, getting conservation easements on, and creating land management agreements for key squares across the board.I think this is one of the most important conservation and economic initiatives in the Sierra Nevada, said Steve Frisch, president of the Truckee-based Sierra Business Council. If its successful we could begin to develop a new forest economy around forest land management.Up to this point, the patchwork of public and private parcels has been relatively benign, said David Sutton, who runs the Sierra Nevada program for the Trust for Public Land. But, he adds, development pressure is building.From a fire management perspective, as well as watersheds, wildlife corridors and recreation, things are challenging enough to manage, Sutton said. Just imagine rather than four, five, or six land owners, ending up with 500. It would be all but impossible to manage.

In the 1860s, the federal government gave the Central Pacific Railroad Company every other square mile of land along the approximate route of the Transcontinental Railroad over the rugged Sierra Nevada. The purpose was to allow the railroad enough land to snake the route east through the mountains. Parcels of land not used on the route were sold for funding.A century later, in the mid-1980s, Sierra Pacific Industries, a Redding-based logging company and now largest private land owner in California, bought most of the railroad land, according to Sutton.The public squares the parcels not earmarked for the railroad became National Forest lands. And starting in the 1970s, the U.S. Forest Service started consolidating high-priority parcels, said Fran Herbst, the lands project manager for Tahoe National Forest.First, the Forest Service used land exchanges trading a less important public parcel for a more important private one in its consolidation effort, said Herbs. Generally, more important means having higher resource value, whether it be wildlife, timber, watershed or recreational value.Almost all of the Grouse Lakes area, Castle Peak, Granite Chief and the North Fork of the American River were obtained with land exchanges, Herbst said.Closer to Truckee, the land that the Grays Crossing subdivision now sits on is the product of a land swap, said the Truckee Donner Land Trusts Norris. The Forest Service traded the land with a private land owner for property near the Boca Reservoir, he said.

As the Forest Service began to run out of land it was willing to trade around 2000, Herbst of the Forest Service said focus shifted to purchases and donations.We just acquired a section in Grouse Ridge at Milk Lake. We closed on that last week. Thats an exciting acquisition, she said.Funding for acquisition comes from the Land Water Conservation Fund, which takes money from off-shore oil drilling, Herbst said. But the Tahoe National Forest has to compete for those funds each year.Either last year or 2006 we didnt get any, Herbst said. But for 2008 we got just under $2 million, so we should be able to finish the Middle Fork of the American River, and start on the Middle or North Fork of the Yuba River.But organizations, namely the Trust for Public Land, are becoming more and more vital in piecing the checkerboard together, she said.[The Trust for Public Land] is very effective in getting private donations and state grants, Herbst said.The potential purchase of 982 acres in the checkerboard just north of Truckee is in the works, said Perry Norris of the Truckee Donner Land Trust.Called Perazzo Meadows, the land is just off Highway 89 north and owned by the Siller Brothers.The effort, however, isnt just about purchasing, Norris said.We have to be creative, he said We dont have the money to buy it all.Beyond acquiring private land and making it public, Sutton, from the Trust for Public Land, said there are two other options conservation easements and management agreements.When you own land, you own a bundle of assets like timber and minerals, and you can sell them individually, he said. You can sell the mineral rights, but still own the land.A conservation easement at a minimum is buying the development rights, but not the land.Less binding is a management agreement, where private land holders and a public agency agree on a plan that insures sustainability for the land, and means owners dont need to come to the agency each time they want to take a tree down, he said.Using purchases, conservation easements, and management agreements, Sutton said he hopes to come up with a unified and coherent management strategy for both public and private lands, without taking lands away from private property owners.This is not a traditional approach, where historically youd buy everything, Sutton said. This is trying to find out what really works for natural resources, for the community and the local economy. We have to think holistically so that most everyone can say, we support this. We need that support because these are huge challenges.While this doesnt mean pining down all the private land in the checkerboard Sutton estimated 30 to 40 percent is all that would be needed he said it still adds up to tens of thousands of acres.As for when this will happen, Sutton said the sooner the better.We think we have to start improving the way the forest is managed as soon as we possibly can, Sutton said. Wed like to be far along in the next five years, but we wont be done in five.

What Norris of the Truckee Donner Land Trust and others are concerned about is rural sprawl. Having a single residence in the middle of public forest could create exasperating work for fire fighters during a catastrophic fire, Norris said.Scattering low-density residential throughout the woods not only puts those residents at risk during a fire, drawing firefighters away from other places, but also creates new ignition points for fires to start, said Sutton.But some people question whether the idea of loading more acreage onto public agencies operating on limited budgets is a prudent thing.If you look at the issue of fire and fuels management, and you look at the limited funds in the public sector, I dont think its universally agreed on that public ownership is the best course, said John Falk, lobbyist for the Tahoe Sierra Board of Realtors.Likewise, Falk said wildlife may not always benefit from being in public hands.Some areas are remote enough and sensitive enough that being in private hands is not bad, because, as some environmentalists are fond of saying, were loving the Sierra to death, Falk said.Looking to the future and with it the possibility of climate change Sutton said having continuous forests will be important for species moving to adapt to a changing environment.The only way we can respond to climate change and protect wildlife is to have large contiguous blocks of land to accommodate any direction a species needs to run, Sutton said.Steve Frisch of the Sierra Business Council said keeping the forests healthy and in place could also be useful for carbon sequestration the removal and storage of carbon dioxide from the air via trees.Maintaining waterways is also a high priority, he said, as the Sierra watershed is Californias main water supply.Climate change in the Sierra is going to be severe, so its going to be really important to have control over the higher Sierra where the water starts so we can manage it, Sutton said.Another aspect of eliminating checkerboarding is recreation. Easements, acquisitions and agreements could keep trails and other recreation amenities open to the public, Sutton said.The Pacific Crest Trail is a key trail corridor, and between Castle Peak and the Sierra Buttes every other mile is on private land, Sutton said.

A consequence of moving a private parcel into the public realm is lost revenue. Tax revenue is an ever-present concern when people are rolling land into nonprofit or public lands, said Falk of the Tahoe Sierra Board of Realtors. There is a limited, finite supply of land that cities and counties can extract revenue from.Falk said that limiting development in the Sierra will only drive up prices, severely limiting who can afford to live in the mountains.We understand that what gives land up here value are the same things environmentalists and conservationists are trying to protect, Falk said. We dont see ourselves at odds with them. Its just a matter of who is in control of the land.Nevada County Supervisor Ted Owens said while the loss of property tax is a negative for the county, many of the properties in play have been held by one family for many generations, so the tax values are relatively low.Waddle Ranch, for example, may have been a loss of $3,000 to $4,000 annually, which is not a huge impact in a $180 million to $200 million budget, Owens said.While less development could mean less property taxes for Nevada and Placer counties, the Sierra Business Councils Steve Frisch of said the long-term benefits would outweigh the short-term negatives.As things like the timber economy becomes less viable we can replace that lost economy with things like recreation and eco-services, Frisch said.Eco-services include carbon sequestration, in which land owners improve the amount of carbon dioxide their forests pull out of the air, and sell carbon credits to businesses trying to off-set their emissions, Frisch said.But Falk said its too early to say that these new economic engines can replace existing ones.Its innovative and forward thinking, but also has been less tested for stability and value over time, Falk said. Its difficult for me to envision that offset being adequate.The consolidation of the Sierra checkerboard could also reduce costs to tax payers, Frisch said.By having a unified strategy for management, work would be streamlined and simplified, reducing costs for the Forest Service, he said, and forests could be better maintained to prevent costly catastrophic wildfires.In the long run the cost of managing wildfire will be incredibly important, Frisch said. Can you imagine how difficult it is for the Forest Service to own every-other 640 acres?

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