Only as healthy as the land is

Caretakers preserve critical wildlife corridors in fractured Deer Creek watershed

For more than 40 years, Lynne Dover has been care-taking 142 acres that she and husband, Al Dover, own on Deer Creek, 3.5 miles west of downtown Nevada City.

In 1973, Lynne Dover and her late husband, Stan Johnson, moved to the land from Big Sur with their two year old son, Shane. They purchased an old rundown ranch from a family that had homesteaded the land for a century and wanted the large parcel to remain intact.

From time immemorial, Native Americans were here. Bedrock mortars can still be found on the property, overlooking Deer Creek, now rushing violently after a winter storm. Today, up and downstream, much of the Deer Creek watershed is highly fragmented with small lots that create barriers to wildlife movement.

Lynne Dover now lives on the property with her “city kid” husband, Al. In December, the Dover’s property became the latest conservation easement secured by Bear Yuba Land Trust. Started in 2003 protecting areas of the Deer Creek watershed from development, the final 40 acre phase of this 140-acre conservation easement known as Peaceful Valley Ranch is complete.

“It was becoming a feeling inside of me. No one is going to develop this land over my dead body,” Lynne Dover said. Raised a Quaker, she spent much of her time on farms and camping in the Sierra Nevada as a youth. Nature and wildlife have always been important to her.

“It’s my home. I’m in love with the natural environment and spaciousness. It’s a gift and I’m a caretaker,” she said.

She remembers exhausting herself rotating water in open irrigation ditches around the ranch.  A large family garden eventually expanded to become the birthplace of Peaceful Valley Farm Supply founded by Amigo Bob Cantisano in 1976.

Today, she has a deep respect for fire. She drags hoses around, watering trees in summer months. She has spent years thinning and giving trees space to create defensible space and a healthier forest and wildlife habitat.

Easily, the property she loves could now be a subdivision, like Morgan Ranch dotting hillsides just across the creek.

Instead, coyote, bear, deer, bobcat and rabbit use the land as a safe corridor to access the creek. And the riparian corridor along Deer Creek provides critical habitat for birds, reptiles and amphibians.

“This acreage is really valuable for wildlife. They can roam,” she said.

Large, intact natural lands and creek corridors present the least resistance to species movement, while developed land and human-created barriers create resistance to movement.  Protecting open space and migration corridors will facilitate climate-induced range shifts and successful species community reorganization, according to The Nature Conservancy 2016 “Conserving Nature’s Stage”.

Only as healthy as the land is

With a conservation easement in place, wetland and riparian resources and lower montane conifer forests of ponderosa pine and mixed oak-foothill pine woodlands will be forever protected. Extending a green space buffer along Deer Creek is good news for migrating wildlife seeking valuable habitat and a refuge from the busy streets, barking dogs and cars of Nevada City neighborhoods.

“The creek is only as healthy as the land is,” said Executive Director Marty Coleman-Hunt, explaining that what the Land Trust does is keep the land from being damaged from development pollution.

Each year, BYLT’s Land Stewardship staff monitors Peaceful Valley Ranch for conservation values like: grasslands for grazing animals, Native American bedrock mortars, wetlands, and wildlife and plant habitat. During these monitoring trips the Stewardship staff and Lynne hike to specified photo point locations and document changes to the land over time. They collect flora and fauna information and provide resources to the landowner if restoration work is needed.  Over time, a large annual inventory of land health accumulates.

“Working with someone deeply invested in land conservation and active property management such as Lynne is wonderful. Protecting land from development is important to minimize erosion into watercourses and maintain the wildlife corridor,” said Stewardship Assistant Elias Grant.

Peaceful Valley Ranch is one of several natural gems BYLT has strategically preserved along Deer Creek, a significant Yuba River tributary that has been negatively impacted by humans since the Gold Rush.

Downstream, BYLT protects 158 acres known as Sundance Ranch for many of the same natural values, including the plant and wildlife habitats which are characteristic of the richly diverse transition zone between the lower elevation foothills and the higher elevation Sierra Nevada mountains. Since 2008, this conservation easement has protected three-quarters of a mile of riparian habitat along Deer Creek above Lake Wildwood.

Upstream, BYLT completed an agreement last month to conserve 40 acres in the headwaters of North Deer Creek, above the undammed confluence of the north and middle forks.

At the snowline bordering Tahoe National Forest, it’s a place where ringtail cats, foxes, mother deer with offspring and many bird species including California spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) and Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)) live among the old growth forests of oaks, pines and madrone on a biological edge where diverse native plant ecosystems converge.

Nina Allen has owned the property since 1997 and is working with BYLT to permanently protect this fragile ecosystem with a conservation easement.

“It is sacred land. It is relatively pristine and I want to keep it that way,” said Nina Allen. Allen is especially passionate about protecting the health of her old growth forest.

The preservation of properties like these support BYLT’s mission to promote voluntary conservation of the Bear and Yuba watershed’s natural, historical and agricultural legacy.

Part of a larger watershed

Deer Creek begins as a trickle in the Sierra Nevada foothills, high above Scotts Flat Reservoir at 4,000 feet elevation. It winds through pine forests and alpine meadows, forging canyons and shaping the landscape. Rainbow and brown trout swim in the creek as it rushes through downtown Nevada City. Below Lake Wildwood, wildlife such as beaver, river otter, eagles and great blue heron are common visitors. At 600 feet elevation, 34 miles from its source, Deer Creek joins important native salmon habitat at the confluence of the Yuba River, according to Sierra Streams Institute.

The health of Deer Creek is important to the quality of life of the people who live in the watershed, yet since the Gold Rush, humans have repeatedly abused the watershed.

In their quest for gold, prospectors turned over every section of the river, diverted its waters, logged its forests, and filled it with gravel and toxic heavy metals. Gold Rush era lead, cadmium, and arsenic was abandoned in vast piles of waste rock along the creek, leaving a tainted environmental legacy.

Today, human population and development pressures continue to pose new threats. Three wastewater treatment plants discharge effluent into the creek, neighborhoods along the creek contribute to erosion and discharge household chemicals and fertilizers, dams and diversions interrupt the natural flow of the creek and degrade water quality and habitat complexity.

New era of public awareness

With the building of the Deer Creek Tribute Trail many local residents and visitors are discovering the wonders of Deer Creek. Working with other non-profit groups like Sierra Streams Institute to restore the health of the watershed, land conservation plays a pivotal role in protecting remnant wild places.

“They are vital, these wildlife corridors,” said Denise Della Santina, Restoration Ecologist from Sierra Streams Institute, who sees land conservation as critical to the overall health of all life within the Deer Creek watershed, especially in light of stressors like extreme winter storms and drought.

“Undeveloped land provides niches and microclimates for species migration,” she said. Macro-invertebrates – the indicator species for a watershed – are dependent on water quality, water infiltration, water temperatures and dissolved oxygen, all things that are adversely impacted when land is developed.

On the contrary, development leads to increased erosion, increased introduction of invasive species, diversion of water and increased soil disturbance. Properties on the lower watershed are continually popping up on the real estate market.

After more than 40 years on the land, Lynne and Al Dover continue to see themselves as caretakers of this landscape.

“A steward to me is part of life, you just take care of things.”

~ Laura Petersen, Community Engagement Manager