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Bear Yuba Land Trust to turn cowboy

Editor’s note: This story appeared in last Thursday’s issue of The Union.
Matthew Renda
Staff Writer
The Bear River flowing below Rollins Lake at the Nevada/Placer county line.
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

A seminal purchase

The Garden Bar Preserve salvaged a large territory that was in danger of being submerged at the bottom of a reservoir.

A Southern California water agency proposed building a 300-foot-tall dam at the site in 2011, but abandoned the plan the following year, citing cost and local opposition.

The South Sutter Water District partnered with Castaic Lake Water Agency, the Palmdale Water District, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District and the cities of Napa and American Canyon to fund a “Preliminary Study” of a proposed dam in 2011.

The proposal was controversial and opposed by a number of local environmental organizations, including Sierra Watch.

Coleman-Hunt said the land trust’s acquisition will make it harder for agencies to embark upon a similar plan in the future as they would have to employ eminent domain and reimburse the state of California the $1.5 million.

Garden Bar Preserve serves as habitat for several bird species, including an endangered species called the black rail, said Bear Yuba Land Trust Executive Director Marty Coleman-Hunt.

Questions linger regarding whether the rail is actually endangered or if the bird’s reclusive nature allows it to elude scientists’ attempts to count it.

The preserve also acts as a vital migratory corridor for several nomadic species, including deer, Coleman-Hunt said.

Coleman-Hunt further noted the newly acquired property links up with parcels vouchsafed by the Placer Land Trust, creating about 7,500 acres of contiguous conservation land on both side of the Bear River.

The property also boasts a segment of the Overland Emigrant Trail, which crosses the Bear River in a spectacularly scenic section of the landscape.

“We will allow public access at some point,” Coleman-Hunt said. “We may have to take guided trips though there for the first few years until we figure out the best routes in, the best ways to set up parking. “

The Bear Yuba Land Trust is venturing into cattle ranching.

Seriously.

The $1.5 million purchase of 652 acres of rolling grassland that abuts the Bear River in the southern reaches of Nevada County was recently completed by the land trust.



The acquisition has paved the way for land trust staff to make an unusual foray into the ranching discipline.

“They’re turning me into Daniel Boone; I’m tracking cattle and pigs,” said Erin Tarr, stewardship program manager for Bear Yuba.




In late August, Tarr guided a tour of the expansive plot, which was historically used as grazing land for various kinds of cattle.

Fresh off of a meeting with a cattle brand inspector, Tarr — trained as a biologist and environmental scientist — is cramming for her new position as the overseer of a grazing operation that seems at first blush to contradict her organization’s environmental mission.

However, Tarr said the grazing operation planned for the property is actually an optimal way to manage the land: ensuring the flourishing grassland on the property is kept under control and the landscape is kept pristine and unsullied by encroaching development.

Tarr and Bear Yuba Land Trust Executive Director Marty Coleman-Hunt have enlisted the assistance of Jim Gates, a cattle rancher whose family has been established in the business for generations.

“My family owned it from way back, but we sold it in the 1960s,” Gates said. “My Uncle Roddy is still buried down there.”

Gates will lease the large plot of land and raise a certain brand of grass-fed cattle that, once slaughtered, is distributed locally through Briar Patch and SPD.

Unlike industrial cattle operations, Gates does not supplement the cattle’s diet with feed such as corn, grain or barley, making the end product leaner.

“There is a coming backlash against the stuff they’re putting in food,” Gates said, referring to the ongoing controversy surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms in agricultural products.

Tarr said Gates’ practices — including keeping the livestock density to around one cow per 17 acres versus the more common one cow per 6 acres — dovetail with the land trust’s conservation principles.

“(Our goal) is to keep the conservation values we are trying to protect intact,” Tarr said.

One of the methods Tarr will use to ensure the ecological health of the property is managing water flow on the property to abet a more even dispersal.

Little Wolf Creek traverses the property, and the cattle have tended to congregate near the water source, detrimentally impacting the banks of the creek and damaging the riparian habitat.

Gates and Tarr both pledged to use natural springs and solar-powered pumps to ensure water flows evenly throughout the property, stopping overgrazing along the creek and river banks and undergrazing on the hilltops of the property.

Another problem is the presence of invasive species — particularly the medusa head and barbed goat grasses — which are unpalatable to cattle and are a persistent fire danger.

“We want to take care of the land, plant some perennial grasses, some trees,” Gates said, who expressed frustration that fire could not be used to eradicate invasive grasses.

“We burned this country every weekend when I was a kid,” he said. “Fire is not just a destroyer. It is a renewer.”

Tarr agreed but understands the bureaucratic hurdles, saying that strategies such as encouraging local fire districts to use the property for training exercises could be a strategem that benefits multiple parties.

Fire would also aid oak regeneration, Gates said, as spindly, gnarled live and blue oaks sprout throughout the property that also houses rose clover and wild oats.

Earlier this year, the Bear Yuba Land Trust obtained a $68,000 grant from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to develop a grazing management plan that focuses on water delivery and ecological repair and maintenance.

Gates hopes to have cattle on the property as early as the coming fall, but fencing issues and grazing agreements with neighbors still need to be finalized before operations can commence.

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


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