Rather then trying to look optimistically at the future, the day before inauguration, I thought I'd look to happier times...to days when ranchers and environmentalists could focus together on a shared vision...preserving and restoring BOTH range land and oak woodland habitat. Creating space where cattle and oaks could coexist in one world.
River Ridge Ranch is a special place for me personally and for WildPlaces. As its first partner in this watershed, RR holds special significance and I am grateful even more today for that relationship . It began in 2003 when WildPlaces, first arriving in this watershed, was looking for a partner on a rather unique proposal--- to restore endangered and declining Blue Oak woodland habitat on agricultural and range lands. (Cattle ranching, it turns out, was devastating for oak woodlands just by nature of cattle doing what they do--trampling, eating, and eroding sensitive habitat, soil, and species). Yet some woodlands survived, and conservation interests seemed to indicate that range lands were the "new black" in restoration...and River Ridge became our partner with Barbara and Gary remaining very valued and dear friends. (Yes, I knew Emma way before university at Mill's.)
How we got to River Ridge? A couple of years prior to 2003, WP joined the Sierra Nevada Alliance and attended its annual conference as a new member organization. We were asked to present on our projects, which at the time was exactly one : The Manter/McNally Wildfire Recovery Project in the Kern Valley, also the location of WP's first "office" --basically crashing on the couch of the Southern Sierra Research Station's facility on Faye Ranch Road (another remarkable partner tale).
The presentation was easy--wildfire restoration was sexy and our project at the Alliance conference was very well received. We had found a home of like-minded people. So in the following year, 2002, I was asked again to present on a WP project. Caught like deer in headlights and admitting that there were no other projects, Joan Claybourn, the marvelous ED at SNA, suggested presenting a dream project. ....so I presented on an issue that was relevant-- recovery of declining oak woodland habitat often conflicting with agriculture but more so with poor urban expansion. In short, WP suggested restoring and protecting oak woodland habitat on cattle ranches and essentially attracting not only the oaks but also the 300 or so species that come with it ----including some rare and endangered animals that most private land owners would rather do without (Endangered Species Act). And, here was the catch: putting together a demonstration site to the that effect on a private ranch.
Of course , I had only penciled an outline of how this would be done ---a demonstration site where techniques of oak restoration would be modified to include the rangeland aspect-- fences, cattle, equipment, water troughs , etc. -- and visa versa. I had no experience beyond my pencil.
Folks at the conference were supportive including CA Native Plant Society members who said it had not yet been done on a large scale. Thanks, Joan Steward, for your direct and supportive input then...and now (another remarkable tale). And yet, who was the lucky ranch partner-to-be? Alas, the the less obvious details of my plan.
That's when Terry and Carol Manning from Springville, who were in attendance that fateful day, introduced themselves saying that there is this town called Springville, and would I consider starting the search for the rancher who would say, "Why yes, by all means, bring your environmental organization and liberal ways onto my land and attract you some Elderberry Longhorn beetles, Willow Flycatchers, and what-not. While you're at it , bring in some Mountain Lions to keep my calves company at night."
So I began the journey to Springville where the Manning's suggested I meet Barbara and Gary of River Ridge Ranch. I did, and (What??), they were biologists as well as ranch owners! And there it was. No gun fire "Get off my land, boy" drama. Some of you know the rest of the story -- that WildPlaces and River Ridge Ranch secured funding to develop a demonstration site on the ranch that would show how cattle ranching and Oak Woodlands could co-exist together and fend off the common threat of poor Urban Development. The project took two years to complete and today hosts dozens of species of plants and animals that live in harmony on the 722-acre River Ridge Ranch.
The story goes on to include multiple fundraisers and volunteer activities at the ranch as well as yours truly having the great privilege of living in the cabin in Camp Nelson, the place I called home for five years. I could go on but feel this bit of history is enough to show the gratitude I have for my relationship to Gary, Barbara, and to Springville. It is a tale worth remembering. Thanks so much.