Rewilding California: a new reserve of 65 million dollars straddling the north and the south

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By Julie Cart, CalMatters

If the Sierra Nevada mountains are the backbone of California, the Transverse Range is its domed disc.

Tectonic pressure has compressed this landscape against the squall – radiating east to west, defying the north-south orientation of the state’s mountains – creating a rocky front of steep slopes and wide valleys extending from the west from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Ocean.

The region connects northern California to its south, providing a rare and undeveloped east-west refuge between the teeming population centers of the Los Angeles Basin and the San Joaquin Valley.

Its topographic rarity is matched only by its animal and plant diversity. Condors, cougars, salamanders, legless lizards and the endangered Bakersfield cactus are among the two dozen sentient species that inhabit it.

This region is such a jumble of desert, snow-capped mountains and vast oak forests – described as a “complicated mess” by one evolutionary biologist – that it has long appealed to environmentalists.

For decades, conservationists have envisioned this area of ​​the Tehachapi Mountains as a great crossroads: preserve it, limit human uses, and stitch it together with already protected land surrounding it to allow wildlife to thrive. move freely again, unimpeded.

Now this ideal, sometimes calledre-wildis well on the way to completion. Last month, The Nature Conservancy completed the latest land purchase in the Reserve Frank and Joan Randall.

The 72,000-acre Randall Preserve is home to two dozen sensitive species of plants and wildlife.Julie Leopo for CalMatters

Buying 72,000 acres from various owners required what acquiring real estate in Southern California always requires: lots and lots of money — in this case, more than $65 million, raised on a decade. Includes approximately $15 million in state grants and partnerships.

The 112 square miles of land — a stretch somewhat larger than the city of Sacramento — is less than two hours north of Los Angeles and about 30 miles east of Bakersfield. Its topography ranges from low-lying desert to nearly 7,000 feet at the top of Bear Mountain. Its ecological value is maximized by its connection to adjacent protected areas: the federal government Carrizo Plain National Monument, Wind Wolves Reserve managed by the Wildlands Conservancy, and nearly a quarter of a million acres of conservation easements in the private domain Tejon Ranch.

This land is far from virgin. People have worked it for centuries and left their mark, and the plot will not be run as a refuge: cattle have grazed here for more than 150 years, and The Nature Conservancy says it will continue to allow ranching ranched on about 90% of the reserve. .

But consolidating protected land into a sprawling preserve is what prompted the Randalls to donate $50 million to the cause, preserving childhood memories of exploring California’s great outdoors.

“When I was 10, I used to drive up to Lake Tahoe with my dad. We would drive up the Owens Valley and see Mount Whitney on the left side, go to Yosemite and hang out in fishing,” said Frank Randall, 91, a retired Newport Beach commercial real estate developer and philanthropist. The couple also recently donated $50 million to buy and keep Newport Beach’s ocean view ban the ranch as a public park.

“After World War II, we resumed our travels and I started to see huge changes happening. I thought, ‘It’s a shame this is happening.’ “

A living laboratory

Conservationists see the region as a living laboratory for scientists: they are studying how climate change is pushing blue oak trees upslope to cooler areas and how genetically challenged mountain lions may benefit from more health. space to move around, for example.

“It’s a crazy mix of things that makes it very diverse and unique,” said Brad Shaffer, director of the UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science. “Biologically, this whole area has long been known to be home to all of this very specialized diversity of salamanders and snakes.”

The transverse chain contains sky islands, small peaks where certain species have been isolated and have evolved over time with slight differences. Shaffer, who studies the rubber boa, said the little snake is an example of a species excluded from genetic admixture by its isolation.

“Each of these little woodpeckers has a rubber boa population that doesn’t exchange genes with other populations,” he said. “It will be interesting to see what happens when things open up.”

Zach Principe, Randall Preserve’s senior ecologist, said managers are in no rush to formalize a plan: It will take three years to inventory the plants and animals and another year to figure out how to manage them. Some issues are immediately apparent, manifesting in one of California’s most iconic trees.

“Let’s think about what could happen here. What can we do in this new climate? asks Zach Principe, chief ecologist at The Nature Conservancy’s Randall Preserve in the Tehachapi Mountains.Julie Leopo for CalMatters

“This oak tree in front of us is two or three hundred years old,” he said, pointing to a drought-stressed blue oak tree at the southern end of the preserve. “The climate when these trees were young was very different. It may be too hot and too dry for blue oaks here.”

Future management may include replanting young oak trees at higher, cooler elevations and experimenting with brush or grass in the lower parts of the reserve. “I want to find a balance. I don’t mean ‘The blue oaks are finished, let’s put the desert brush.’ “But he said he wouldn’t keep the land as it was just for the sake of history.

“Let’s hedge our bets, let’s think about what could happen here. What can do in this new climate?

Livestock grazing continues

The Randall Reserve bears the marks of human activity. The land is marked by limestone quarrying and the remains of a large-scale kiln, and it has nine working cattle ranches.

Cattle grazing can be a red flag in the West, where more than a century of overgrazing on public lands has caused irreparable damage to large areas and water sources. The Nature Conservancy says it will continue to allow grazing on the Randall Preserve, but it will be managed as a tool to control weeds and wildfires.

Standing by a corral in a shallow valley in Loop Ranch, Principe pointed out the rolling grasslands that appeared to have withstood the state’s prolonged drought without any signs of fire. Without livestock grazing on non-native plants, the situation could be very different, he said.

The Randalls’ donation helped purchase the 28,354-acre Loop Ranch in the Tehachapi Mountains. Cattle ranching will continue there as part of the reserve.Julie Leopo for CalMatters

Elsewhere, extensive fencing is erected along a shallow stream, intended to prevent livestock from damaging the sensitive water source. Recently, it was clear that cattle had trampled the area. Now that the ranch has been incorporated into the reserve, Principe said thoughtful grazing for livestock will be in place.

Some studies show that carefully managed grazing can benefit natural systems. The Randall Preserve could still be a laboratory to test this thesis.

Rachel Mason, who manages the reserve for The Nature Conservancy, called the strategy “active management,” an approach somewhere between fully restoring an ecosystem to a previous state and conserving it by leaving it alone. The Randall Preserve will be managed for climate resilience, she said.

“For the most part, in the conservation world, we are actors,” she said. “We want to fight invasive plants. If we do nothing, they could take over and damage the ecosystem.

This means controlling non-native weeds by unleashing livestock on them. Livestock mow plants and provide a key advantage in reducing fuels.

“We’re not interested in wildfires completely taking over our properties,” Mason said. “You could say that fire is a natural part of the landscape. But reducing the risk of catastrophic fire also benefits our neighbors.

“Little things will change quickly”

State Highway 58 bisects the reservation, interrupting natural migration corridors. The State Department of Transportation is working to determine where wildlife crossings above or below the highway can be located. A final evaluation is at least a year away, according to a ministry spokesperson.

First, the teams carry out extensive inventories of the plant and animal species present on the reserve. After that, in a few years, a management plan will be developed, Mason said.

“Reality isn’t going to change much very quickly, until we can take steps to see what works,” she said.

Figuring out what works takes time and a lot of experimentation. Watching a bobcat swoop down a drain after a squirrel, Principe ponders the distinction between restoration and improvement.

Wild turkeys roam Randall’s Preserve.Julie Leopo for CalMatters

The latter is a more realistic goal where invasive species have already left their mark. Strips of wild pigs roam the landscape, mining the hillsides with their tiller-like rootage for tender bulbs, acorns, salamanders and lizards. Although no game hunting is allowed, Principe said hunters will reduce the pig population.

There are no plans to allow hiking or other recreation on the Randall Preserve. Managers say there are not the staff or infrastructure to support it, although volunteer conservation opportunities are planned.

As dusk fell and mist rolled in from the Central Valley, cloaking the canyons in a silver-blue haze, Principe said while final plans for the reserve are years in the future, the most critical element has been reached: he was saved.

“It’s here and we’re going to find out,” he said. “We’re pretty lucky.”

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