Wide open spaces

Land trust helps preserve North State’s natural assets

Paul Kirk (left) and John Hunt of the Northern California Regional Land Trust have fielded new inquiries about conservation since the Camp Fire.

Paul Kirk (left) and John Hunt of the Northern California Regional Land Trust have fielded new inquiries about conservation since the Camp Fire.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Learn more:
Visit landconservation.org for a list of properties protected by the Northern California Regional Land Trust and other information.

When Paul Kirk and John Hunt drive south from Chico, they see the landscape in the way artists would, as a panorama of possibilities.

They appreciate what we all enjoy and many take for granted: rolling fields dotted with grazing cattle; rice farms, doubling as takeoff and landing points for waterfowl; fruit and nut orchards displaying seasonal colors; groves of majestic oaks; chaparral rising from the valley floor up foothill canyon walls.

They particularly appreciate what’s absent. These places, outside city spheres, have been spared from development. Apart from fencing and the occasional farm house or outbuilding, most every acre overflows with natural assets.

“Places people see from town, places people see from the road that they just assume [are] and appreciate as open space—those things can’t be taken for granted,” Hunt said. “Driving down [Highway] 99, all that rangeland and open space, those are values in our region conveyed simply by virtue of existing; they’re not necessarily protected, they’re not necessarily going to stay … unchanged.”

Preservation takes intent—effort. As staff members at the Northern California Regional Land Trust, a Chico-based nonprofit with a shoestring budget, Kirk and Hunt focus on protecting, as their site says, “open spaces, working lands, and natural resources for generations to come.”

To do so, they facilitate conservation easements: compacts under which owners agree to keep land undeveloped, in perpetuity, for financial gain (compensation and tax benefits). The trust finds funding, brokers the transaction, then monitors the property to ensure it remains preserved.

The nonprofit owns one property, Lower Deer Creek Falls, 600 acres of riparian corridor in eastern Tehama County. Otherwise, its staff manages easements acquired by others. Those funders include the state and federal government, and ecological organizations. The inventory includes Rancho Llano Seco, properties along Comanche Creek and Little Chico Creek, mitigation sites by Meridian Road and, as of 2018, Berkeley Olive Grove.

All told, the trust—founded in 1990 as the Parks and Preserves Foundation—holds 32 easements with over 25,000 acres conserved in Butte and Tehama counties.

“We are the frontier of open space in California,” said Hunt, conservation director of the land trust, which he led for five years as executive director; Kirk has filled that role since last spring. “There’s enormous value up here.”

The Camp Fire touched a half-dozen properties in the trust, but not as severely as other areas. That’s because these either are working lands—forests, ranches, farms—or wildlands, where fire often has a function, as opposed to urban sites.

Hunt and Kirk inspected each location with its landowner. Then they collaborated with agencies such as Cal Fire, the Butte County Fire Safe Council and California Deer Association, and experts such as Chico State fire ecologist Don Hankins, to craft vegetation management plans that adhere to conservation terms.

Kirk explained that some affected landowners got approached by outside interests about restoring damage—for example, timber harvesters offering to remove trees. That’s not necessarily beneficial; “we want to make sure what we’re doing is going to be good for the restoration of coniferous forests of this area,” he continued. That’s a key reason they’re consulting “other agencies in the community that have more experience than we do in doing coniferous forest habitat management.”

Burned most was the Hanford property in upper Paradise: 100 acres of oaks and ponderosa pines, overlooking the west branch of the Feather River. The trust has held that easement since 1999. Among others, fire reached its first easement, Blue Oak, a .39-acre open space near Cherokee set aside in 1992.

“There’s the footprint of the fire, but there’s also the corollary of what does that mean to the larger landscape?” Hunt said. Responding to a disaster that’s in many ways unprecedented, “this is rolling out in real time.”

Additional funding has become available since November, from sources such as Cal Fire. A new set of landowners approached the land trust expressing interest in easements, both in and adjacent to the burn zone. Hunt said these are “substantive properties that are in good locations for the maintenance of timber [and] good forest management that could convey good open space values [as] a community asset—in that fashion, possibly help support emerging considerations for fire planning on the landscape.”

The land trust has interest from property owners elsewhere in the valley, too. Kirk and Hunt estimate they could triple the holdings with the conversations they’re having, including follow-ups to prefire discussions.

“Which is more than we can really do,” Kirk said with a laugh. Besides those two, the organization consists of a part-time bookkeeper and a five-member board (which has a vacancy).

Property owners’ decision to preserve their land takes time: “You’ll reach out to someone and three years later, all of a sudden, you get a call,” Kirk said. “‘Hey, I’m kind of interested. I wasn’t interested before, am now.’”

Transactions also take time. The trust must secure funding and file the requisite paperwork on landowners’ behalf. Acquisition monies rarely include an amount for work costs; the organization must raise its own operating budget.

The land trust hopes to expand partnerships with like-minded local groups. California Open Lands, also based in Chico, manages seven preserves totaling 68 acres in Northern California—the largest, 42.5 acres within Meriam Park, comprises two parcels off Humboldt Road.

“Many hands make small work,” Hunt said. “We can increase our coordinated community endeavor. Some of the conversations definitely have arisen as a result of the Camp Fire; it’s brought a certain perspective, because it’s a pretty unprecedented scenario.”