On a clear day, Susie Nishio's eyes are drawn to a shadowy shape in the distance as she drives to work in Davis from her Sacramento home.
She's observing the Sutter Buttes, a circular collection of eroded lava domes just outside Yuba City, about 55 miles from downtown Sacramento.
Last Sunday, she explored the buttes up close, finding rare geological terrain, wildlife and the beauty of the open hillsides.
"It's just a very special place," says Nishio, a research associate at the University of California, Davis.
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Organizers of the Middle Mountain Interpretive Program agree that the Sutter Buttes are special.
The group organizes numerous spring and fall hikes through the volcanic terrain with the goal of educating community members and protecting the land from residential and commercial development.
"We've become stewards of the land," says Karen Morrison, hike coordinator with the group. "It's just a visual landmark out there."
Landowners agree to open the gates to their farms and hills for hikers to roam and enjoy. At the same time, the owners receive the support that Middle Mountain provides, and by extension, that hikers also provide.
In its mission of preservation, the group works directly with landowners in doing the heavy lifting of implementing land easements, which protects the land in perpetuity from development, says the group's executive director, Corey Wilkins.
"We remove development rights so that the areas stay farmland, woodlands or grazing land," Wilkins says. "That's our focus."
Local, state and federal funds compensate landowners, he says. Funds from hikes, gear and product sales help keep the Middle Mountain Foundation running.
The foundation, which became a land trust in 2004, is working on five projects, one of which would protect 1,800 acres. About 400 acres have been formally protected by conservation easements, thanks to the group. And one effort has failed.
"It's been an uphill road so far," Wilkins says.
In 1989, the vision of naturalist Walt Anderson, who chronicled the wildlife of the area in the 1970s, led the organization to start giving educational hikes.
Luree Stetson, who's been on three tours and wants more, says that the area is like a tucked-away paradise.
"It shows open space and ranching as it probably looked like 75 to 100 years ago," she says.
University botanists, volcanologists and other experts lead small groups of hikers through the buttes to explore the plant life, the terrain, the geological formations and more.
"Many, many people have seen the buttes from the outside," she says. "Now they can see them from the inside. They see the history, the native presence."
Some tours revolve around wildflower observation, birds of the area and the myths behind the buttes. Some hikes are even led in the dark.
"It's about stopping and talking and taking notice of the trees, the flowers and the rocks," Morrison says.