Conservation groups snapped up large swaths of Sierra Nevada during recession

The catastrophic collapse in real estate prices that started in 2007 left more than a legacy of mass foreclosures in the Sacramento region; it also left vast expanses of newly preserved open space in the Sierra Nevada that the public can use for recreation.

Depressed land prices allowed private conservation groups to snap up thousands of acres, much of which had once been planned for housing. The properties stretch along the Interstate 80 corridor from the crest of the mountains to the town of Truckee, north to the Feather River and south toward Lake Tahoe. The parcels form a quasi-public park system – one owned by nonprofit groups but accessible to the public, mostly free of charge.

“Increasingly, land protected for the public benefit is owned by private charitable organizations,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, a Nevada City-based group that’s played a leading role in recent conservation efforts.

The nonprofits’ holdings include the 3,000-acre Royal Gorge cross-country ski resort. Developers paid $35 million for the property at the height of the housing bubble in 2005 and planned to build 950 condominiums and single-family houses. Then the market collapsed, making the arduous task of building atop Donner Summit infeasible.

The Bay Area developers who owned the land were ready to unload it, and conservation groups were eager to buy. They agreed to pay $11.25 million in the summer of 2011, near the bottom of the real estate market.

The Truckee Donner Land Trust now owns Royal Gorge. The group is clearing new trails, thinning long-neglected forests and building trailheads for hikers and mountain bikers to explore the land’s meadows, woodlands and peaks. The area is free of charge in summer, though its groomed trails require paid passes in winter.

“Royal Gorge is the best example of how a lot of factors, including the recession, created a once-in-a-generation opportunity for lasting conservation,” Mooers said. “The fact that we were able to work together and take advantage of that opportunity will be appreciated for generations to come.”

David Rolloff, professor of recreation, parks and tourism at California State University, Sacramento, said such private preservation groups are especially adept at fundraising and buying land that developers also prize. “Conservancies can often move much faster than government in acquiring land,” Rolloff said. And with government making few purchases these days, “conservancies have filled this important niche preserving open space in the public interest.”

Conservation efforts by private groups have been ongoing in the mountains for decades, but prior to last decade’s recession the groups tended to operate alone or cooperate informally. Then in 2007, five groups –The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, the Truckee Donner Land Trust, the Feather River Land Trust and the Sierra Business Council – joined forces to create the Northern Sierra Partnership.

The coalition’s goal is to protect key areas – watersheds, lakes and mountain meadows – that face development pressures. With new development immediately adjacent to Lake Tahoe all but prohibited, developers have turned to areas near Truckee, just outside the Tahoe basin, and locations farther afield as potential home-building sites.

Working together allowed the groups to accelerate their conservation and fundraising efforts, and to take advantage of opportunities in the downturn, said Lucy Blake, the partnership’s president and former head of the Sierra Business Council.

“Together we’ve conserved over 40,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada since 2007,” Blake said.

That’s an area about the size of Stockton. It includes a significant chunk of the Martis Valley, a sagebrush-covered plain between Truckee and Lake Tahoe where cattle have grazed since the 1880s and where the TV western “Bonanza” was filmed in the 1960s.

Placer County supervisors approved a plan in 2003 that would have subdivided more than half the 45,000-acre valley to build 6,000 homes, shopping centers and golf courses along Highway 267, which bisects the area.

The Martis Valley Community Plan led to a fierce fight among conservationists, developers and the county. Activists won a key court battle in 2005, then signed a series of agreements with developers that dramatically scaled back building plans and preserved at least 5,000 acres of open space, much of it part of the Northstar ski resort.

Also part of the deal: The Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land paid $23.5 million in late 2007 for the 1,500-acre Waddle Ranch, a property once planned for hundreds of homes and a Walmart. They replaced no-trespassing signs with one that said, “Welcome to Waddle Ranch – now open to the public,” along with miles of recreation trails.

Placer County pledged $10 million toward the purchase of the Waddle Ranch, and the state kicked in $5 million. Private donations and developer fees on luxury homes edging the valley also helped fund the purchase, said Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

Today, Waddle Ranch is popular with trail runners and mountain bikers, many from the Truckee area. Truckee has changed in recent decades from a railroad town to a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. The newly opened lands on its doorstep provide areas for outdoor recreation that didn’t exist before.

“As the community has grown, there’s more and more demand for outdoor recreation opportunities,” Blake said. “For many years Truckee was sitting in the middle of a large checkerboard landscape of railroad land. Nobody noticed and it didn’t matter. But as the demand for outdoor recreation increased, the need to create a more rational landscape that people could enjoy was greater.”

The preservation effort has consisted not just of outright purchases but also long-term conservation easements, where the owners retain title but agree to preserve their land as open space. Ranchland in the wide-open Sierra Valley, in Plumas and Sierra counties north of I-80, is protected under such easements, said Blake, a rancher in Sierra Valley.

In other cases, lands were handed over to the government or private entities that shared an interest in keeping them open. Waddle Ranch, for instance, is now owned by the neighboring Truckee Tahoe Airport District, with a permanent conservation easement on the land. Its recreational uses are managed by the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

Other parcels remain in the hands of nonprofits and are essentially operated as quasi-public parks. That’s the case with Royal Gorge, Norris said.

In addition to Royal Gorge, the land trust took title in 2012 to Webber Lake, headwaters to the Little Truckee River, a major water source for Reno. The area has been closed to the public since the 1850s but will be open to all come 2017, Norris said. Nearby Lacey Meadows already has a 7-mile loop trail open to the public on the 2,700-acre property.

“We never intended to be in the parks business where we’re managing thousands of acres of property,” Norris said. “But there’s no public agency that wants to take on ownership. They’re underfunded. These are properties with high conservation values, so we’d rather hang onto them and add future management and restoration costs to our capital budget and give them the TLC they deserve and need.”

The fundraising campaign for Royal Gorge raised $15 million – $3.75 million above the purchase price – with the excess being used to maintain the property and fund upgrades to trails, signage and parking areas, he said. Homeowners in the nearby community of Serene Lakes, which had ferociously opposed the proposed development, kicked in $4 million, and Sugar Bowl Resort homeowners gave $3 million. The state Wildlife Conservation Board also provided $3 million, Norris said.

“We were very excited to be able to participate and very appreciative of land trusts for their work and commitment in pulling this all together,” said Ken Hall, a Carmichael resident and past president of the Serene Lakes Property Owners Association.

Today, real estate prices are rising again, closing the window of opportunity for conservation groups to amass large holdings. “In the next five to six years, we’ll see a lot of speculative money come off the sidelines and propose a lot of development in the Sierra,” Mooers said. “The pressures on the Sierra Nevada will ratchet back up.”

But many of the large parcels once slated for development have already been preserved as open space, Mooers said. Because of the recession, he said, “We were able to take advantage of relatively low prices and put properties in conservation that would have been otherwise more vulnerable for development.”