A ‘rewarding project’ | TheUnion.com

A ‘rewarding project’

Brian Bisnett, an unassuming landscape architect and land-use planner based in Grass Valley, almost single-handedly salvaged a 924-acre swathe of undulate land that straddles the border of Yuba and Nevada counties and protected the large tract from development while opening it up to the public.

The recreational purposes are plentiful, as the property includes a mile of frontage along the Yuba River and nearly another mile of frontage of Deer Creek, providing access to the confluence of the two significant Nevada County water bodies.

“I’ve been told this is one of the best places for fly-fishing in the entire foothills,” Bisnett told The Union, while standing on a grassy prospect about 50 feet above a gently flowing stretch of the Yuba, during an early September tour of the sprawling property.

“It’s nice to know that people will finally have access to it.”

Bisnett purchased the entire property in 2009 for $4.2 million with the idea of setting aside about 700 acres of the parcel for permanent conservation.

To do so, Bisnett needed the help of multiple agencies from the public and nonprofit sector. He divided the property into four segments: Yuba Narrows Ranch, Black Swan Ranch Phase 1 & 2 and Excelsior ranches.

The Yuba Narrows Ranch, which comprises 530 acres of the total property and contains the river and creek frontages, was sold to the California Department of Fish and Game with the Trust for Public Lands abetting the transaction.

The DFG is in the process of buying Black Swan Ranch Phase 2 (107 acres toward the eastern portion of the parcel), which will provide trail connections to the entire property. The deal is expected to be finalized by the end of the year, Bisnett said.

The Bear Yuba Land Trust, a local land conservancy nonprofit, bought Black Swan Ranch Phase 1, a 50-acre piece that contains a series of interconnected ponds that provide habitat for wildlife.

On Sept. 5, The Union took an opportunity to tour the Black Swan Pond with Bisnett and Erin Tarr, steward program manager for the land trust.

As Bisnett’s pick-up truck pulled up to a prospect overlooking the pond, Tarr pointed to a great blue heron that had been resting in the middle of the pond.

The elegant creature spread its large wings and gracefully departed from the pond’s surface, demonstrating the critical role the property plays as a migration corridor for birds and other wildlife.

The pond also serves as important habitat for the western turtle, Bisnett said.

The land trust will conduct invasive species eradication projects on the land before ultimately transferring the property to DFG with an eye toward providing connected trails throughout the entire property.

“We want to develop a parking lot, provide trailhead access and a dock area on the pond for fishermen,” said Marty Coleman-Hunt, executive director of the land trust. “Eventually, the trails will all connect up, which will make it quite a recreational mecca for the Smartsville area.”

The remaining tract, the Excelsior Ranches, which is placed on an elevated portion of land directly in the center of the 924-acre parcel, will be divided into 10 separate 20-acre lots which will be developed into residences, Bisnett said. The deed initially allowed for development of 20 parcels, but Bisnett elected to divide them into 10 with the hope of reducing the impact to the surrounding environment.

Bisnett said he has attempted to balance the need to square the considerable personal fiscal investment he made with his desire to protect the sensitive environment on the property and provide public access to a biologically and geographically diverse area that had been in private hands for generations.

“There have been any number of sleepless nights in the last year and half,” he said.

‘The most rewarding project’

Bisnett said he has a deep appreciation for land.

He knows the 924 acres thoroughly. He is aware of where fig trees were planted by ranchers on the property and how to access the rich fruit sprouting from the upper branches.

He can point out certain pools on Deer Creek where salmon used to gather to procreate and die. He knows the land contains the Smartsville Block — famous in geological circles as the place where a volcanic island chain collided with the granitic continent of North America more than 150 million years ago.

The collision created fissures in the rock, through which sea water flowed, dissolving gold and quartz and bringing veins of the metals, which are typically buried far beneath the earth’s surface, to the top of the crust, essentially creating the Gold Country.

“A landscape architect has to be a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none’type of person,” he said. “The nature of the job forces you to know a little about a lot of things.”

Bisnett first became interested in the property when he was working on a remediation project at the Blue Point Mine, which is adjacent to the property he would eventually buy.

“I heard the Excelsior Ranch was changing hands, and I knew that it might not stay together,” Bisnett said. “I just thought this was an opportunity to do something … to prevent the property from being divided by developers, to try and do something big picture.”

Bisnett took a personal risk when he began paying for an option to buy in 2005 and finally sealed the multi-million dollar deal in 2009, but he knew all along the land was special and that the pubic deserved an opportunity to enjoy its many nooks and vistas, he said.

“It’s been stressful, a challenge and has taken way longer than I ever imagined it would,” he said. “But it has been the most rewarding, exciting project I’ve ever been associated with in my life.”

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4239.

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