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Creating Conservation Easements in the Sierra Valley: RCPP in Action

Just north of Lake Tahoe lies a 120,000-acre valley where the Sierra Nevada, Cascades and Great Basin converge--forming an exceptionally unique and ecologically rich area called Sierra Valley.  

“Sierra Valley mirrors its more famous geologic cousin, Lake Tahoe, in size and shape—and both were lakes during the Pleistocene,” points out Elizabeth Palmer, easement specialist for NRCS in California. “Sierra Valley, however, was transformed into a lovely lake of billowing grasses.”

Palmer says that the Valley’s unique intersection of ecological landscapes results in lush wetland meadows, perennial streams, upland sagebrush habitat, volcanic cliffs, and mixed conifer and black oak forests. In this abundance of ecological niches, hundreds of mammals, birds, fish, plants and other species find happy homes. Multi-generation ranchers raise hay and beef cattle here while stewarding the Valley’s abundant natural resources.  Shelton Douthit of the Feather River Land Trust points out that Californians who may have never been to Sierra Valley  benefit from it daily. The Valley’s large complex of wetlands and montane meadows form the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Feather River and the Feather River ultimately provides water to hundreds of cities, thousands of farms, and 27 million Californians. Not far from Sierra Valley, the city of Reno, is among the fastest developing metro areas in the west.


The Feather River Land Trust, the Northern Sierra Partnership and The Nature Conservancy submitted an application for RCPP in 2015.“It was an exceptionally robust application. This partnership had a clear vision of what they were protecting, a plan for doing so, and they knew that working with the local ranchers—to continue what they were already doing—was key to their success,” says Dean Kwasny, easement programs director for NRCS in California.

“The RCPP helped catalyze a new wave of conservation easements in Sierra Valley that are conserving the ecological and agricultural integrity of the landscape and serving as an important source of working capital for ranch families.  These easements are a truly a win-win, for the land and for the community,” says Lucy Blake, president of the Northern Sierra Partnership.

Kwasny and Palmer point out that the RCPP partnership has also worked diligently and successfully to bring in state-level funders to match the NRCS federal dollars, leveraging Farm Bill funds and making it easier for ranchers to commit to the easements.
In recent months, the Sierra Valley RCPP has created easements on five ranches totaling 2,440 acres and they expect to close on at least five more by the end of 2021.

Many Sierra Valley ranchers have been on the land for several generations. Most started as dairy farmers before transitioning in the mid 20th century to beef cattle ranchers, featuring high quality hay supported by numerous native grasses.

Douthit says each of the RCPP ranches has unique natural values that are important to conserve.  “The Grashuis Ranch, for example, offers seasonal wet meadows, numerous springs, black oak woodlands, and wildlife corridors—connecting the ranch to lands conserved prior to the RCPP.”

The recently-closed Church Ranch easement adds yet more biodiversity and agricultural productivity to the mix. The 668-acre ranch includes pine forests, two perennial streams and 492 acres of wet meadows rich in habitat, benefiting water quality and groundwater.  

“My great, great grandfather came to San Francisco by steamer from New York in 1850,” says Randy Church.  “My family has been on this ranch for five generations. We really wanted to see it continue as a ranch.”  Church added that he was especially appreciative that the Feather River Land Trust respected the traditional land uses already taking place on the ranch—and that those uses could coexist with the protection of the area.

When asked what is especially noteworthy about the Sierra Valley RCPP, Kwasny pauses. “The RCPP for Sierra Valley has especially committed and visionary partnerships. They work with us every step of the way and have consistent communication. They are protecting vital landscapes and they leverage public and private partnerships to do so. And they never lose sight of the importance, the needs and the motivations of the ranchers—the private landowners. It really is a model of what RCPP should look like.”

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