BYLT secures funding to conserve historic ranch in Penn Valley

Dec. 15, 2017 – Last week, the State awarded Bear Yuba Land Trust (BYLT) $3.45 million, facilitating the second phase in the preservation of a 3,070-acre cattle ranch in Penn Valley, forever protecting one of Nevada County’s largest, historic and important agricultural lands known as Robinson Ranch.

It was the largest award given by the Strategic Growth Council through the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALC Program), a Program administered by the California Department of Conservation in cooperation with the Natural Resources Agency.

The SALC Program is part of California Climate Investments, a statewide program that puts billions of Cap-and-Trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy, and improving public health and the environment—particularly in disadvantaged communities. The Cap-and-Trade program also creates a financial incentive for industries to invest in clean technologies and develop innovative ways to reduce pollution.

Protecting critical agricultural lands from conversion to urban or rural residential development promotes smart growth, ensures open space remains available, and supports a healthy agricultural economy and resulting food security. In addition, a healthy and resilient agricultural sector is becoming increasingly important in meeting the challenges that arise as a result of climate change.

“Since our founding, the Land Trust has been committed to permanently protecting our local ranch lands,” said Marty Coleman-Hunt, Executive Director of BYLT.  “Ranchers tend to be great conservationists. While they manage their land for highest herd productivity, it also means they take care of water resources and natural habitat for wildlife.  The Robinson Ranch is among the best-managed landscapes in our watershed, and we are delighted that the family wants it to remain that way forever.”

Disappearing ranchland

Robinson Ranch is one of 12 original pioneer ranches in Nevada County. For 150 years, the ranch has been in commercial agricultural production, by one family. The entire ranch is currently used for commercial beef production and haying, and includes irrigated pasture and dry rangelands.

In 2015, 1,477 acres of the Robinson Ranch were conserved with an agricultural conservation easement, held by California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). The newest award by the state will help conserve the remaining 1,593 acres with an agricultural conservation easement held by BYLT.

Upon hearing the news, fifth generation rancher Sue Hoek, whose grandparents started farming the land in the 1800s, spent the day with her father on the property talking about the importance of conserving the family ranch.

“It’s truly a blessing. This was his dream. He didn’t want to develop. He wants to see the land stay a ranch,” said Hoek.

Considered at high risk for subdivision, the Robinson family ranch has been subject to increasing development pressure over the years. Since 2015, 19 undeveloped lots have been sold within a five-mile radius of the ranch, according to Zillow Real Estate. These ranged in size from one-third of an acre to 20 acres, averaging 5-10 acres.

In an area that has become fragmented during Sue Hoek’s lifetime, the working landscape of Robinson Ranch is critical to protecting a valuable local food supply, providing native wildlife plenty of space to roam free, creating firebreaks and keeping air clean by sequestering carbon.

With the conservation easement in place, Robinson Ranch can continue to be a working ranch, and the deed will reflect that it must stay in agriculture. If there comes a time the Robinson family is no longer able to work the ranch, another young farmer from the next generation can come in and continue the legacy of local food production.

In the U.S., 40 acres of farmland are developed every hour, according to the American Farmland Trust. In addition, about half of the nation’s protected species use private working lands for 80 percent or more of their habitat.

“It’s getting eaten up, inch by inch, throughout the whole state of California,” said Hoek who recently visited Orange County, where acres of orange groves are now subdivisions.

BYLT’s commitment to agriculture includes: ownership of a  652-acre working cattle ranch, Garden Bar Preserve on the Bear River and conservation easements permanently protecting 2,870 acres on Linden Lea Ranch, Pioneer Dawson Nichols Ranch, Wild Rock Ranch and Quail Ranch. This week, BYLT planted native perennial grasses at Garden Bar Preserve as part of a long-term Holistic Rangeland Management Plan.

Cattle and rangeland remain the most valuable agricultural commodities in the county by far at 48 percent and 18 percent, respectively, according to the Nevada County 2016 Crop Report. That year, cattle, pasture and rangeland led the way in valuable crops, generating a combined value of $13,805,650 for area ranchers. Ranchland beat out the combined value of wine grapes, timber, vegetables, nursery and flower crops, by bringing in $6,000,800.

“It’s definitely a big contributor to the economy here,” said Nevada County’s Agricultural Commissioner Chris de Nijs who signed a letter of support for the Robinson Ranch grant funding.

Lower elevation foothill communities are considered the best agricultural lands in the county. They are also the most vulnerable to urban sprawl and commuter highways. With a growing population, these pressures will continue to mount, putting the local food supply at risk of being forever lost.

“Once you pave over farmland, you can’t get it back,” said de Nijs. An aging population without a succession plan also puts agricultural lands at risk, with some families selling to developers if their children are not interested in farming. Now, Robinson Ranch will be protected in perpetuity.

Highly visible along Indian Springs Road, Robinson Ranch spans both north and south of Spenceville Road. It provides important views to the rural agrarian landscape.

“It’s a crown jewel for the county. I’m excited. It’s going to be here for my kids so they’ll always have a view of what ranching looks like,” said de Nijs.

Important wildlife corridor

Robinson Ranch provides local and regional open space connectivity to other conserved lands, such as the adjacent 11,900-acre Spenceville Wildlife Area, owned by California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The ranch is located within the blue oak woodland belt that forms a band along the boundary of the Great Central Valley and Sierra Nevada Foothill regions, supporting a wide range of wildlife. Recent studies have determined that 29 species of amphibians and reptiles, 57 species of birds and 10 species of mammals find this a suitable habitat for breeding.

The threatened California black rail, the Western pond turtle (a CDFW species of special concern) and large populations of red-winged blackbirds have been documented on the property. The ranch serves as a unique boundary between the Upper Bear River watershed and the Upper Yuba River watershed, and makes up the headwaters of Little Dry Creek. It is also intersected by Squirrel Creek, Indian Springs Creek, Vineyard Creek and Slacks Ravine-Deer Creek.

“We are very excited to continue working with the agricultural community to protect and steward these important landscapes in our region. When done right, conservation of our rural quality-of-life enhances our economy and provides refuge for wildlife at the same time,” said Director of Land Stewardship, Erin Tarr.

On Sunday, Feb. 11, Tarr and Sue Hoek will lead a workshop entitled, “Preserving your Agricultural Land in Perpetuityat Sierra Harvest’s 8th Annual Sustainable Food and Farm Conference along with a California Department of Conservation representative of the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program.

Founded in 1990, BYLT is a community-supported, not-for-profit organization that to date has preserved over 12,000 acres with an ambitious new goal of conserving 20,000 acres by 2020. This season, an anonymous local donor has stepped forward with a generous gift to support the land conservation work of BYLT and match dollar for dollar every donation gifted to BYLT’s year-end Land Appeal.

The SALC Program is part of California Climate Investments, a statewide program that puts billions of Cap-and-Trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy, and improving public health and the environment—particularly in disadvantaged communities. The Cap-and-Trade program also creates a financial incentive for industries to invest in clean technologies and develop innovative ways to reduce pollution. California Climate Investments projects include affordable housing, renewable energy, public transportation, zero-emission vehicles, environmental restoration, more sustainable agriculture, recycling, and much more. At least 35 percent of these investments are located within and benefit residents of disadvantaged communities, low-income communities, and low-income households across California. For more information, visit the California Climate Investments website at: