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Deal Will Preserve a Large Area in the Sierra Nevada

A conservation easement will prevent development on a 13,000-acre ranch in the scenic Sierra Valley north of Lake Tahoe.

October 18, 2002|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- A trio of nonprofit groups announced a $2.5-million deal Thursday to put a 13,000-acre ranch off-limits to development in the Sierra Valley, a sweeping and scenic alpine bowl north of Lake Tahoe that is under increasing growth pressure.

The agreement prohibits development on the Bar One cattle ranch, which sprawls across 10% of the 130,000-acre valley, the biggest in the Sierra Nevada.

Funding came from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the state. The deal was struck by the Truckee-based Sierra Business Council, the California Rangeland Trust and the Nature Conservancy.

The Sierra Valley has only a handful of tiny towns and scattered ranch homesteads, some dating to the Gold Rush era when Swiss-Italian families began setting down roots. But the valley, where cows seem to outnumber humans, is fast coming under pressure from development.

It sits just a half-hour drive from booming Truckee and the Tahoe north shore, where affordable housing is growing ever more scarce. The rapidly growing northern suburbs of Reno can also be reached in a half-hour via the interstate.

Meanwhile, resort towns near the valley's snow-capped rim exert another kind of growth pressure: the development of second homes and trophy ranches for the wealthy. As a result, land prices have been rising in the Sierra Valley. Real estate that used to fetch no more than $1,000 an acre has lately been selling at triple that price.

Preservation advocates worry that large parcels could be subdivided into 80-acre plots for high-end residential and resort development, virtually ending the valley's ranching heritage and putting increasing pressure on wildlife.

"It's caught in a pincers between some very fast-growing areas," said Jim Sayer, Sierra Business Council president. "This is the start of trying to ensure that the community can stay in ranching."

Jack Sparrowk, co-owner of Bar One, said the effort would help "keep ranching at the forefront of the Sierra Valley's economy."

Though it once was dominated by the dairy industry, beef and hay ranches now cover the valley floor. Many of the ranches, which range in size from less than 1,000 acres to more than 5,000, are owned by descendants of the original settlers.

Under terms of the agreement, a conservation easement will allow the Bar One to continue as an active cattle ranch but will not permit its sale for development.

The agreement also requires ranch managers to adopt stewardship measures to help protect the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Feather River. In addition, the easement will provide important foraging for deer and habitat for threatened and endangered species while preserving a largely unsullied pastoral landscape.

Straddling the Sierra-Plumas county line, the valley is ringed by 7,000-foot peaks topped most of the year by snow. An ancient lake once covered the entire floor, rim to rim. All that remains of it is wetlands that feed the Feather River.

Several animal species uncommon in other parts of the Sierra venture into the vast valley, among them the pronghorn antelope.

The valley also is home to the Sierra's largest concentration of bird life, and was recently identified by the Audubon Society as a national priority for protection.

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