E.J. Remson, right, senior program manager for the Nature Conservancy… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
CALIENTE, Calif. — A new land ethic is taking root on 31,900 acres north of Los Angeles managed by an alliance of environmentalists and cattlemen who want to preserve ranching as a way of life while also protecting mountain lions, black bears, golden eagles and other wildlife.
The area encompasses three adjacent ranches extending 15 miles from California 58 in southern Kern County to the southern end of the Sierra Nevada. It is framed by forested hills and watered by streams roiling through overlapping ecological zones — the Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada range and the Central Valley — making it among the most biologically diverse regions in North America.
Environmental groups led by the Nature Conservancy created the wilderness preserve over five years by buying two ranches — the 7,300-acre Caliente Ranch and the 15,000-acre Tollhouse Ranch — outright for $5.25 million and $11 million, respectively. The group bought development rights to the 9,600-acre Parker Ranch for $2.7 million.
"We've saved these wild lands from being gobbled up by sprawl pushing east from Bakersfield," said E.J. Remson, senior program manager for the Nature Conservancy. The ranches are being managed as working, profitable cattle operations but in a way that also allows wildlife to roam and remain vital.
The terrain is home to federally endangered species including beavertail cacti known as Bakersfield cactus and the rarely seen brick-red Tehachapi slender salamander, which lives most its life underground and, having no lungs, absorbs oxygen through its skin.
To balance the needs of cattle and wildlife above and below ground, selected slopes are grazed to keep grasses and shrubs low enough for hawks and eagles to spot gophers and other prey more easily. In other areas, grazing is controlled to prevent erosion and allow native plants and flowers to flourish. Fences are going up along waterways. Ranch hands are prohibited from harming non-game wildlife.
Cattle rancher Bill Parker of Parker Ranch has no beef with any of that.
Parker, Remson and Nature Conservancy ecologist Zach Principe tramped across a rippling meadow on his Kern County spread on a recent weekday to take stock of the wildlife along a creek.
"This is a nice piece of heaven," Parker said, nodding approvingly at the lush creek bed where fences were installed to keep livestock out. "I enjoy watching the sun set here with a cold beer and a chorus of meadowlarks."
As he spoke, tree frogs were hopping through the tall grass. Western bluebirds darted amid the willows and elderberry bushes. A golden eagle wheeled overhead. Cattle browsed nearby.
Parker — scuffed boots, frayed bluejeans, salt-and-pepper hair — hardly seems like the kind of cowboy who would let environmentalists have a hand in helping to manage the ranch, which has been in his family for almost 150 years.
But with subdivisions closing in, Parker recognized that his way of life is as precarious as that of the endangered California condors that share the emerald hills and valleys edged with twisted blue oaks.
His ranch and the others were secured with grants and financial agreements arranged by the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Board and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
"The conservation easement on this ranch has had zero impact on our style of living," Parker said. "That is, except for one thing: There's lots more coyotes, squirrels, golden eagles, bluebirds and frogs than there used to be."