Llano Seco locked up
Almost directly across Ord Ferry Road from the gravel driveway leading into the Llano Seco Rancho, a mile or so on the Chico side of the Sacramento River, is a nearly new house set back about 75 feet from the road. Although this is farm country, it’s not a farmhouse.
“See that ranchette,” Jim Saake said, pointing to the house. “That’s what Llano Seco could have become.”
Saake is president of board of directors of the Northern California Regional Land Trust (NCRLT), and in the past few months he’s completed negotiations with the owner of Llano Seco to put the last remaining acres of the 18,000-acre spread in a conservation easement guaranteeing that it will never be turned into ranchettes, subdivisions or anything like them.
Instead it will remain as it is, a few thousand acres of farming and cattle-grazing land surrounded by and interspersed with many more thousands of acres of riparian forest, a couple of small lakes and soft, undulating hillocks dotted with scrub. Once a vast Mexican land grant, it still looks much as it did before the settlers arrived.
For Chicoans, it’s a riverside treasure that’s nearly at their doorstep. The distance from Walnut Street to the arch over the entrance to the ranch is only about 10 miles. Parts of it are open for regularly scheduled tours.
On a tour of the ranch Tuesday with Saake and the NCRLT’s new executive director, Tami Ritter, we drove for miles past huge stands of giant valley oaks, rolling hills, sloughs and cottonwoods along the Sacramento River. We saw a wide assortment of wildlife, including hawks, herons and at least one large crane perched on a snag in what is known as Perkins Lake. There are some 350 resident deer on the ranch, Saake noted, but we didn’t see any.
The lake, he said, is the favorite spot of ranch owner Richard Thieriot, whose family until recently owned the San Francisco Chronicle. Because of his wealth, apparently, he’s felt no pressure to farm the land more intensively or to develop it otherwise. Gradually, over the past 15 years or so, he’s been selling it outright to such agencies as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Fish and Game or granting conservation easements in return for cash payments and certain tax benefits.
The easements allow—and pay—him and his heirs to continue the farming (rice, walnuts, almonds, garbanzo beans, sunflowers and hay) as long as they desire and as long as they don’t develop the land further. The Nature Conservancy manages one easement, the Fish and Wildlife Service another. The NCRLT will manage this final easement on the last unprotected 4,235 acres. Of those, approximately 1,870 are in agricultural production, 1,715 are used for cattle grazing and 736 are covered in riparian vegetation.
The state of California has committed $6.5 million in funding to purchase the easement.
On Wednesday, after CN&R press time, the ranch and the NCRLT, along with the California Department of Conservation, hosted a tour of the ranch followed by a picnic lunch at Perkins Lake to celebrate completion of the easement. Various state officials, including Mike Chrisman, the secretary for resources, accepted invitations, and Thieriot was scheduled to give a brief history of the ranch.