Yuba Highlands threatens disappearing oak woodlands
The rolling hills studded with blue and valley oaks look much as it did in 1854, when Tim Smith’s great-great-grandfather first settled the region, now known as Spenceville Wildlife Area.
“I have a legacy of our family caring for this area,” said Smith who now raises 100 head of cattle on 552 acres adjacent to the preserve.
The pastoral lifestyle his family has known for generations could soon change drastically if the proposed Yuba Highlands housing project is built nearby.
If the project goes as planned, 5,100 homes – enough to support a town of an estimated 14,000 to 15,000 people – will be built by 2020 on land bordered by the wildlife area and Beale Air Force Base.
A paved and widened road through Spenceville to Wheatland, Lincoln and Roseville would serve as the primary access to the isolated project. The roads would fragment the landscape and put 230 fish and wildlife species at risk, said Tim Caldwell, the area’s wildlife habitat supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Game.
California oaks threatened
More than one million acres of California’s oak woodlands already have been developed. Approximately 750,000 are at risk of development before 2040, according to a 2006 report issued by the California Oak Foundation, based in Oakland.
The oak woodlands of the Central Valley and Sierra Foothills face the most immediate threats; 80 percent of the state’s threatened oak woodlands are located in the Sacramento and San Joaquin areas, the report said. Spenceville is considered in the Sacramento area for the purposes of the report.
The wildlife area’s 11, 213 acres is one of the largest intact oak woodlands in California. The area is a corridor for wildlife migrating from the Central Valley to the Sierra Foothills, Caldwell said.
If the housing development goes through, numerous road kills from commuters would result. Traffic criss-crossing the wildlife corridors would unravel the department’s efforts to protect animals and force the state to consider ending programs that protect wildlife and habitat in Spenceville, Caldwell said.
“For all that stuff (the housing development) to happen, the wildlife area will have to go away,” Caldwell said.
Yuba County supports housing development
Despite Fish and Game’s concern for the area’s habitat and wildlife, the Yuba County Planning Commission voted 3-2 to O.K. the project’s Environmental Impact Report and passed resolutions supporting the Area Plan, zoning amendments and a developer agreement in February. The EIR concluded Yuba Highlands would have no significant impact on wildlife because a 450 foot open space buffer zone would be created along roadways. It also said other impacts caused by the development could be mitigated to an acceptable level.
Environmental groups including the Friends of Spenceville, the South Yuba River Citizens League, the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club have appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of the Environmental Impact Report because they say it is flawed.
The groups want to see a major decrease in the number of homes built, or preferably a relocation of the project closer to Marysville, said Don Rivenes of the Audubon Society, who comes to Spenceville to look for birds.
The appeals will be heard by Yuba County Board of Supervisors at 6 p.m. May 15 at 915 8th St. in Marysville.
For years, the Spenceville Wildlife Area has been a popular retreat for hikers, birders, horseback riders and hunters looking to get away from a world in overdrive.
This was home to the Nisenan, or southern Maidu; evidence of grinding rocks used to crush acorns can still be found dotting Dry Creek.
On a grassy hillside, overlooking the valley floor, a sunken depression is believed to be a spiritual lodge of the Nisenan.
By 1854, when Smith’s great-great grandparents Dawson and Elizabeth Nichols purchased their land from a French fur trader, most of the Nisenan were gone. But a few returned each year to gather sweet red top clover and share fresh bread baked by Elizabeth Nichols.
On a recent mid-week spring walk with Smith and his dog Hank in Spenceville, the threat of development seems far away.
“I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than here,” said Smith.
Slight breezes rustled the new grasses and tender young oak leaves. Bees hummed in the warm sun. The oak titmouse and the northern junko called from the trees as the distant black-bodied cows grazed among rocky outcrops.
“Not enough people have access to places like this,” Smith said.
To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4231.
History of the Spenceville Wildlife Area
Spenceville was a small town that began in 1862 and supported 60 families. The townspeople worked in a nearby copper mine, the tailings of which continue to taint a pond on site.
Danger signs posted in the area warn visitors of the contaminated water.
During World War II, the United States Army established Camp Beale and removed all remaining Spenceville residents through the power of eminent domain. At that time, Tim Smith’s family lost part of their acreage. The Army was used to train soldiers in a mock German village.
In 1962, the federal government deeded part of Camp Beale’s acreage to the state for a wildlife preserve, and the Spenceville Wildlife Area was born.
How to get there
Take Highway 20 toward Marysville. Turn onto Hammonton-Smartville Road, just east of Smartville. After about a mile, turn left (toward Beale Air Force Base) onto Wheatland Road. Travel a little more than four miles, then turn left onto gravel Waldo Road. Continue 1.8 miles on Waldo Road to the bridge across Dry Creek. Cross the bridge and continue on Spenceville Road for .3 miles to Long Point Road, then park at the parking area next to the bridge at the former Spenceville town site.
– Laura Brown
A wildflower walk led by author Julie Carville, will take place April 11 for the California Native Plant Society.
Carville, who wrote “Hiking Tahoe’s Wildflower Trails,” will lead participants on a 4-four mile hike to Fairy Falls. Her hike will cover basic botany, Nisenan plant uses, pollination processes and fun stories about plants. The hike is free, but donations are welcome. Bring lunch, water and a magnifying glass. Children nine and older are welcomed.
Meet at 8:30 a.m. at the Eric W. Rood Administrative Center, 950 Maidu Ave., Nevada City. Hikers will back at their cars by 3 p.m. For more information, contact Carville at mtn
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 265-4741.
– Laura Brown
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