Sierra Valley ranch lands shielded from development
In summer, cattle roam the green, stream-crossed bottom of California’s largest alpine valley in much the way they have for the last 150 years. Now, two recent agreements between ranchers and conservationists give hope that the rangeland heritage of Sierra Valley will live on despite real estate pressures that have turned ranches in other parts of the state into subdivisions.The owners of DS Ranch, an 8,000-acre spread, and Trosi Canyon Ranch, 1,360 acres of grazing land and prime deer habitat, recently signed conservation easements barring the properties from being subdivided and developed. The Truckee-based Sierra Business Council, the Feather River Land Trust, the California Rangeland Trust and the Nature Conservancy have all worked on preserving the valley.In the end, the partners hope their conservation efforts, which now cover more than 30,000 acres, will guard the spectacular valley from the housing pressures of nearby cities.”[The Sierra Valley is] at a real interesting juncture with real estate prices …,” said Paul Hardy, executive director of the Feather River Land Trust, one of the preservation partners. “The real estate market is inevitably making its way to the Sierra Valley.”The market pressures are coming east from Reno, about 25 minutes from the Sierra Valley, and Truckee, which is about the same distance to the south, Hardy said.”For ranching families it is a tempting time to get out of the business,” he said.
Truckee’s Sierra Business Council, using funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, has been a leader in the Sierra Valley. Their “working landscapes” initiative was built to preserve the open spaces of agriculture land.”I consider that a real milestone,” Steve Frisch, the vice president of programs for the Sierra Business Council, said of the 30,000 acres protected from housing development.The business council has nearly $1 million in funding remaining for conservation in the Sierra Valley, and is looking to stretch those funds by finding matching state or federal grants. The California Rangeland Trust, a nonprofit set up to preserve working ranches, holds the majority of the conservation easements in the Sierra Valley. More ranchers are coming to the group asking about the easements, said Nita Vail, executive director of the trust.People searching for affordable acreage to surround their homes in the Sierra are increasingly looking at the Sierra Valley, Vail said. “A lot of this is the interest in having some acreage, and you see a lot of the ranches split,” she said.
Pivotal timeThe Sierra Valley is at an important point in its history, where longtime ranching families are passing their spreads on to the younger members of the family, at the same time that the cattle industry’s profitability is marginal.”The Sierra Valley is unique in that there are about 70 ranches in the valley and about half of them still have multi-generational ranching families on them,” Hardy said.Vail said that some ranching experts estimate that in the next 10 years nearly 70 percent of ranches will change hands to the younger generation, making this a critical time to ensure that ranchlands are not subdivided.The rangeland trust is looking for other funding sources, possibly through the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, to help fund ranchers who are asking for an easement on their property.In the case of the Trosi Canyon Ranch and DS Ranch, the California’s Wildlife Conservation Board even pitched in funding because of the agreements’ benefits to wildlife.For Hardy, who grew up in the Sierra Valley, there is a sense of urgency in helping ranch families protect their way of the life. The need was recently drilled home when two ranches, each approximately 2,000 acres, sold to Reno developers.
“People are choosing to put their cards on the table, and either keep on ranching or cash out to the massive real estate values …” Hardy said. “You talk to any rancher that has a nice developable property and they say they are getting calls from developers.”The Sierra Valley• The valley’s floor is approximately 100,000 acres.• The entire valley floor is privately owned.• Over 30,000 acres of the valley is under conservation easements.• The Sierra Valley is part of the Feather River watershed, a 2.5-million-acre watershed that provides water to the majority of California.