The Campaign to Conserve Sierra Valley
California’s Best Kept Secret
Sierra Valley is one of the last, best places in California, a natural wonder unknown to most Californians. Rivaling Lake Tahoe in size and surrounded by high mountains, this enormous meadow gathers the headwaters of the Middle Fork Feather River, which wind through the valley in a mosaic of waving grasses and meandering water.
For thousands of years, the Washoe people flourished in this fertile landscape, sustaining themselves on plentiful game, fish, and other natural bounty. European immigrants began to arrive at the time of the Gold Rush, attracted by the chance to make a new life in this spectacular but secluded mountain valley. Many of their descendants live on in the valley today, working the land settled by their ancestors over a hundred years ago.
The Nature Conservancy and the Feather River Land Trust — working together as part of the Northern Sierra Partnership — are partnering with landowners to conserve, steward, and expand opportunities for the public to enjoy the extraordinary natural assets of Sierra Valley. Through our investments, we hope to strengthen the local economy, providing new sources of revenue for ranchers, new visitors for local businesses, and new economic opportunities for residents.
A Hotspot of Natural Diversity
Sierra Valley supports the greatest diversity and abundance of bird species in the entire Sierra Nevada. A critical migratory stop on the Pacific Flyway for 230 bird species, the valley provides breeding habitat for more than 17 rare or threatened species including the Sandhill Crane, White-faced Ibis, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and the Black Tern. In the fall and winter months, Sierra Valley also supports the highest concentration of hawks, eagles and other raptors in the Sierra Nevada.
With more than 16,000 acres of permanent wetlands and 20,000 acres of seasonal wetlands, Sierra Valley is the largest area of wetland habitat in the entire Sierra Nevada. These wetlands attract the dazzling array of shorebirds and waterfowl that rest, breed or live in the valley.
Sierra Valley’s unique location—at the intersection of the Sierra Nevada, Great Basin and Cascade eco-regions—helps to explain the unusual variety of animals that inhabit or pass through the valley over the course of the year. The valley is home to black bear, mountain lion, gray fox, coyote, mule deer, beaver, and badgers, as well as to Great Basin pronghorn and Rocky Mountain elk.
The Sierra Nevada is the most botanically diverse region for its size in the United States and Canada and the flora of Sierra Valley is an extraordinary example of that diversity. Botanists have identified more than 1,100 plant species in Sierra Valley. This represents approximately 15% of California’s flora in an area that includes only .002% of the state’s landmass! The inventory includes many rare plants like Sierra Valley ivesia (Ivesia aperta var. aperta) and Lemmon’s clover (Trifolium lemmonii). Variations in climate, topography, moisture, and soil types influence the distribution of plant communities and provide a diversity of habitat types for birds and animals.
The northern Sierra Nevada is rich in fresh water, typically receiving 50 or more inches of rainfall a year, an amount more characteristic of Oregon than California. Sierra Valley serves as a giant basin, collecting the water flowing into it from the mountains on all sides. Every spring, as the snow begins to melt, local streams top their banks and sheet across the landscape, recharging the groundwater, bringing new life to the valley’s rich meadows and marshes. In the northwest corner of the valley, those waters converge to form the Middle Fork Feather River, a federally designated Wild and Scenic river. One of the state’s most important water sources, the Middle Fork supplies water to over 1.6 million Californians every year.
A Proud Ranching Heritage
Sierra Valley is a hard place to leave. In the 19th century, a number of Irish, Swiss, and Italian families found their way to Sierra Valley from the old country and put down deep roots that endure to this day. Others came from the eastern states, attracted by the opportunity to get ahead in the California gold fields. Descendants of those early settlers are today among the most passionate advocates for conserving the remarkable landscape and unique way of life in Sierra Valley.
In 1998, a number of Sierra Valley ranchers co-hosted a community workshop with the Sierra Business Council to discuss the future of the valley. Ranchers were worried about development pressures, low cattle prices and the difficulties of passing land on to the next generation. They discussed conservation easements as one strategy to ease economic pressure and preserve the valley’s agricultural land base. At the time of the workshop, not a single ranch in Sierra Valley was protected with a conservation easement. Since that day, Sierra Valley ranchers have worked with land trusts and public agencies to conserve over 30,000 acres of ranch land for the benefit of current and future generations. This represents approximately 25% of the valley floor. Here are some of Sierra Valley’s conservation pioneers:
Artie Strang (1903-1998), owner of Valley View Angus Ranch in Sierraville was the first rancher in Sierra Valley to sign a conservation easement. In his nineties, Artie decided to donate an easement to the Pacific Forest Trust. According to his heir, Linda Sanford, “Artie was as thrilled as could be about the easement…We work our ranch just the way we always have, and everyone’s happy. The pressure is off but nothing else has changed. A lot of my neighbors are doing easements too. If we can link these places together, this beautiful valley won’t get wrecked.”
Attilio Genasci (1909-2008), owner of the Genasci Ranch in Loyalton, believed passionately in the need to protect Sierra Valley for future generations. Upon signing an easement with the California Rangeland Trust to protect his own ranch, Attilio said, “I hope what we’ve done here, protecting this beautiful piece of God’s earth forever, becomes a tiny drop of water that eventually floods the entire Sierra Valley.” Although Attilio passed away in 2008, his son Jim and daughter-in-law Mary are grateful for everything he did. Said Mary, “The conservation easement allowed Grandpa’s dream to be fulfilled and for our family to continue ranching”.
Tony Maddalena, owner of the Maddalena Ranch in Sierraville, started working with his family in the early 80’s on a plan to keep the ranch. Two decades and two conservation transactions later, the planning is done and the ranch is protected. “I was one of the guys who was skeptical about easements, but not anymore. Easements have had a big impact on what has happened in this area…They are a wonderful tool for being able to pass land on to the next generation.”
Russell Turner, owner of the Turner Ranch in Sattley, is a descendant of Mainers who came to California during the Gold Rush and settled on the family ranch in 1857. Says Russell, “My grandfather bottled milk right here in Sattley and delivered it as far as Goodyears Bar… I still have a canvas sign that says ‘H.A. Turner Dairy Products, Sattley, CA. I like the ranch for sentimental reasons and wanted to pass it on”, says Russell. “I thought about doing a small amount of development …but selling an easement was a better alternative. My son now runs the ranch and it has worked out good. Nothing has changed too much.”
Sierra Valley Conservation Partnership Project
While the progress Sierra Valley ranchers and conservationists have made since 1999 is truly remarkable, the amount of funding for conservation easements has unfortunately not kept pace with landowner interest.
In 2015, the Feather River Land Trust, the Northern Sierra Partnership and The Nature Conservancy teamed up to try to secure additional funding to conserve working ranches in Sierra Valley. We submitted a proposal to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to fund conservation easements in Sierra Valley. Our proposal faced long odds, given that we were competing against high quality projects all over the country, but we thought it was worth a try.
We’re thrilled to report that, in early 2016, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) approved our request for $9 million in funding for Agricultural Land Easements in Sierra Valley over the next 3-4 years! These NRCS dollars will fund up to 50% of the appraised value of eligible easements, with the other 50% to be raised by our partners from state and local sources. Project applicants will be evaluated against national, state and regional ranking criteria as part of a competitive selection process, and projects will be funded on the basis on those scores. Easements will be held by the Feather River Land Trust.
Although much work lies ahead, this is clearly a tremendous opportunity for Sierra Valley. Over the next few years, we will be working with interested landowners, NRCS, and key state agencies to conserve another 20,000 acres of important habitat on working ranches in Sierra Valley.
Expanding public access to the natural wonders of Sierra Valley
For all of its beauty and ecological diversity, Sierra Valley is one of the best-kept secrets in California. One reason for its low profile is the absence of any well-established destination for nature-based tourism. For decades, small groups of bird enthusiasts have migrated to Sierra Valley annually to witness the extraordinary flocks of birds that show up in April and May to mate, nest and raise their young, or simply rest on their way further north. Visitors with scopes and binoculars line the Steel Bridge and other parts of Marble Hot Springs Road, pointing excitedly at courting sandhill cranes and screeching yellow-headed blackbirds, and often — quite unconsciously — blocking the road.
In 2003, the Land Trust partnered with the Sierra Business Council and The Nature Conservancy to acquire a 575-acre parcel on the edge of the Sierra Valley wetlands owned by rancher Tony Maddalena. While Tony continues to lease part of the land for grazing, the property has also become a destination for school field trips and the thousands of birders who visit Sierra Valley every year. At the preserve, visitors can get out of their cars (without blocking the road) and follow a path through the sagebrush to a wonderful bird-viewing platform. Importantly, there is also a toilet for visitors to use in their moment of need.
In 2014, the Land Trust teamed up with The Nature Conservancy and the Northern Sierra Partnership to expand the preserve by acquiring 331 acres due west of the Maddalena property. The new property included an important diversion structure that enables us to retain water in the wetlands for wildlife and public recreation. Building on that success, in 2016 we were able to acquire 1,630 acres that connect the eastern and western parts of the preserve, enhancing access to the preserve from A-23 and providing an ideal site for interpreting Sierra Valley’s fascinating natural and human history. Together the three properties now form a single 2,500-acre preserve, which we are calling (not surprisingly) the Sierra Valley Preserve.
The Sierra Valley Preserve will be managed for a variety of public benefits including wildlife habitat, wetlands and water, sustainable agriculture, cultural and historical preservation, low-impact recreation, and education. The preserve’s seasonal and permanent wetlands and open water provide migratory and breeding habitat for sensitive species like greater sandhill cranes, black tern, redhead, white-faced ibis, and 200+ pair of yellow-headed blackbirds. The preserve’s upland habitat supports a diversity of wildlife such as pronghorn, American badger, coyote, western meadowlark, sage thrasher, and the Sloat and Doyle deer herds. The property also conserves a rich Native American and agricultural history and includes portions of the Jim Beckwourth Trail.
FRLT is currently working on a Land Management Plan for the expanded preserve. The planning process is helping us identify and map important resource areas on the ranch, as well as opportunities for resource restoration and expanded public access and recreation. Our goal is to create a new network of trails, trailheads, bird viewing platforms, interpretative signs, and other facilities to help visitors understand and appreciate the unique natural and historic heritage of Sierra Valley.
The Northern Sierra Partnership, The Nature Conservancy and Feather River Land Trust are deeply grateful to everyone who made the expansion of the Preserve possible. The effort was funded –100% — with private donations from our supporters. We can’t wait to welcome you out to the expanded Preserve to enjoy the extraordinary wildlife and 360-degree views of Sierra Valley! For now, while we complete our planning process, year-round public access is limited to the original, eastern-most portion of the preserve accessible on A-24. You can find directions to the preserve entrance here.
The Northern Sierra Partnership is continuing to mobilize new private funds to advance conservation in Sierra Valley. By combining private funds with funds from public agencies and in-kind donations from landowners, we hope to maintain the conservation momentum of the last decade and enhance the local economy of this extraordinary valley.
We invite you to help us conserve the unique natural, cultural, and historic heritage of Sierra Valley by making a tax-deductible donation today. Gifts of cash or stock are welcome and may be pledged over a period of three years. Contributions should be made payable to Community Initiatives/NSP and sent to:
Northern Sierra Partnership
564 Santa Rita Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Your donation is 100% tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. For tax purposes, you will receive a receipt for your contribution from Community Initiatives the 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that serves as fiscal sponsor for the Northern Sierra Partnership.
For information on pledges, gifts of stock, or honorary and memorial gifts, please call (650) 323-2050.