A highway underpass for mountain lions. A partnership to buy the largest expanse of unprotected redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A bike and pedestrian trail 32 miles long hugging the Monterey Bay.
What do these ambitious endeavors have in common? They’re all projects of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. A few years ago the Land Trust, founded in 1978, started thinking big. And today the group that got its start protecting Antonelli Pond is making its mark on some of the region’s highest-profile conservation projects, projects like:
• A wildlife crossing under Highway 17. The Land Trust is purchasing land and easements on both sides of the highway and is working with Caltrans to build a wildlife underpass at Laurel Curve so mountain lions, deer and other creatures can safely extend their range and maintain genetically healthy populations.
• The Coastal Rail Trail. In Spring 2014 the Land Trust became the lead private fundraiser for the portion of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail that lies along the 32-mile Branch Rail Line between Santa Cruz and Davenport. Money raised by Land Trust for the Rail Trail will be used to attract state and federal grants.
• San Vicente Redwoods (formerly Cemex Redwoods). The Land Trust is one of four conservation organizations that chipped in to buy the 8,500-acre North Coast property, the largest piece of unprotected forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in 2011. The Land Trust is in charge of developing a recreational access plan for the property—something hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians are eagerly awaiting.
• Star Creek Ranch. In 2012 the Land Trust bought a 1,200-acre patch of Pajaro Hills that serves as an important wildlife corridor. It could one day be a crucial piece of a regional park.
So what else besides the Land Trust do these disparate projects have in common? They all support a vision for Santa Cruz County that got a dramatic update several years ago, and which will help ensure that our piece of the Central Coast remains beautiful and livable—not just for humans, but for the thousands of plants and animals that call this place home.
Click to learn about the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County's super ambitious "Great Land & Trail Campaign."
A Blueprint for The Future
Begun in the late 1970s in response to sudden and rampant growth, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County started out acquiring land for conservation the way most land trusts do: by seizing whatever opportunities came its way. That strategy led to the protection of some important small pieces of land, and some pretty impressive larger parcels, among them the Byrne-Milliron Forest and the 680-acre Circle P Ranch.
With these successes, in 2009 the Land Trust decided to really take the future into its own hands. It was time to balance chance—the protection of lands as they became available, something the Land Trust couldn’t possibly control—with the purposeful pursuit of a vision.
“In the land trust movement they’re very opportunistic. They take what comes along,” explains Stephen Slade, deputy director for the Land Trust. “As they mature and become more professional, they establish priorities.”
By studying hundreds of reports and consulting scores of experts and stakeholders, the Land Trust set about determining what Santa Cruz County will need to remain healthy in the face of mounting population pressure and climate change.
The result was the Conservation Blueprint, a plan that will guide the Land Trust’s decisions for the next 25 years. It prioritizes four key goods: wildlife habitat and connectivity, water supply and quality, working lands, and recreation. It identifies eight geographical areas in the county where protecting those elements will yield the most benefit.
“Explosive growth in our four neighboring counties will soon surround us with four million people,” Land Trust Executive Director Terry Corwin wrote in the introduction to the Blueprint. “The Blueprint is about what we can do together over the next 25 years to protect our county for future generations. It’s about our kids and grandkids and the world we are going to leave them.”
Protecting Wildlife And Water in Santa Cruz County
It’s easy to gloss over terms like “wildlife habitat and connectivity” without really thinking about what they mean. The Blueprint recommends protection for 17 different vegetation types, each supporting a distinct animal community. It also targets “wildlife corridors”—patches of land that bridge major habitat areas and allow roaming animals like pumas to mingle with other populations. It suggests creating “climate change refuges” in wetlands and north-facing slopes where plants and animals can adapt to hotter, drier conditions by migrating to cooler or wetter places.
Similarly, preserving “water supply and quality” is a lot more interesting within this framework than it sounds. In the vision for the future laid out in the Blueprint, Santa Cruz County’s critical watersheds are protected from further development. Some lands contain percolation ponds where depleted groundwater aquifers can recharge. Encouraged by incentives from the Land Trust, farmers and ranchers use less water, maybe even employing techniques developed at the 440-acre Watsonville Slough Farms, a Land Trust-owned property that is partly leased to farmers and partly used for demonstration.
That brings up the conservation of “working lands”—the farmlands, ranchlands and timberlands that contribute to the local tax base and act as limits on sprawl. The Land Trust is unusual among coastal conservation groups in that it supports continued economic activity on lands it buys or holds easements on, partly to support a healthy local economy and partly because, done right, working lands can be sources of clean water and wildlife habitat. Locally the Land Trust has pioneered sustainable timber harvest on conservation lands like the Byrne-Milliron Forest. That’s now the model for a light-touch logging plan in a portion of the San Vicente Redwoods, which is regarded as prime wildlife habitat and a source of clean water—and is being carefully managed to stay that way.
Read about forester Nadia Hamey and sustainable timber harvest in Byrne-Milliron and San Vicente Redwoods.
The fourth Blueprint priority, recreation, speaks to the way humans interact with nature. “We connect with nature every time we breathe or drink water or simply look at the beauty that surrounds us,” reads the Blueprint. Recreation is another way of connecting with the natural world, and it can inspire stewardship even as it supports a local economy partly based on tourism. The Blueprint identifies the city of Watsonville, the Rail Trail and connections to the Bay Area Ridge Trail among a handful of opportunities to increase the county’s trail system and inspire its residents to connect with and care for nature.
Each of the Land Trust’s major current projects—the wildlife crossing, the Rail Trail, San Vicente Redwoods and Star Creek Ranch—serves one or more of these four priorities. The wildlife crossing establishes habitat connectivity. The Rail Trail will be a major outdoor recreational draw. San Vicente Redwoods and Star Creek Ranch arguably serve all four priorities. And they all came about after the Conservation Blueprint process began in 2009.
That’s the beauty of having a vision, says deputy director Slade.
“The point of the blueprint is it puts these goals on the wall, and when an opportunity comes up, you say ‘Yeah!’ It gives you a big-picture goal so you can take a little risky step.”
A New Path to Conservation in Santa Cruz County
The Conservation Blueprint recognizes that the days of land trusts buying acreage and selling it to the state for parkland are probably behind us. So it recommends that the Land Trust make greater use of tools like conservation easements (payments to landowners in exchange for a legally binding pledge not to develop their property) and stewardship incentives (for example, paying a farmer to plant native vegetation along a creek) rather than just relying on the outright purchase of lands. Property ownership, after all, means expenses like trash collection, fence repair, trail building and habitat restoration. Those things aren’t cheap.
The Blueprint also recommends that the Land Trust continue to allow some properties to remain income-generating working lands. Proceeds from selective timber harvest on one property, for example, can pay stewardship expenses on several properties.
“Over half of our operating budget goes to stewardship,” says Slade. “That’s a big part of the story. Stewardship costs are growing and ongoing forever. And timber harvest and ag leases fund a lot of stewardship.”
When the Land Trust bought Watsonville Slough Farm in 2009, it took the steepest land out of production but leased half the acreage back to strawberry and vegetable farmers. That’s a valuable income stream today that funds wetland health, as well as a future nature preserve with trails that will link up to the Rail Trail.
But it does something equally important with respect to the challenges of working with an agricultural community that’s a little wary of environmental causes.
“It gives us credibility,” says Slade. “It says, ‘We understand the challenges of farming, and we understand the challenges of farming next to protected wetlands.’ It’s not just, ‘We think it’s good for you.’ We think it’s good for us, too.”
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