California is blessed with an abundance of open spaces, protected in different fashion by a quilt of public and private entities. The federal government controls roughly half of all Golden State lands, under the jurisdiction of the U.S Forest, National Park, and Fish and Wildlife services, among other agencies. About three percent is owned by the state, with a steady expansion of areas protected by nonprofit organizations.
Among these is The Wildlands Conservancy. Founded almost 30 years ago, the Conservancy maintains California’s largest private nature preserve system, using those lands to provide educational programs to more kids than any other nonprofit in the state. It recently acquired the 26,600-acre Lone Pine Ranch from Dean Witter’s descendants, expanding its stewardship to four preserves along a 106-mile stretch of the Eel River.
Land ownership, particularly of places intended to be conserved and serve the public and nature, is an awesome responsibility, as in “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.” Thoughtful stewardship of forests, meadows, and water bodies – ecosystems – prompts the need to grapple with multiple challenging and complex questions, ranging from the practical to the metaphysical. What does “natural” or “wilderness” mean in a world in which humankind’s smudgy fingerprints are everywhere? How is “restoration” determined for lands that’re subject to millennial climate cycles, as influenced by people’s behavior, and which’ve been repopulated with species that immigrated from far away onboard ships and shoes? How does one pay for any of this?
The Eel River has been particularly besieged by humans, subject to dams and hydroelectric facilities, large portions of its flows siphoned off for irrigated agriculture, cannabis cultivation and drinking water. How best to heal the Eel is a topic of heated debate between fisher people, conservationists, farmers, and water purveyors. Native tribes, themselves mauled by more recently arrived peoples, have their own perspectives, but they too have been drained of their lifeblood, weakening their ability to robustly engage.
How to best manage lands before and after fires is another pressing, practical, stewardship question. Roughly 5,000 acres of Lone Pine Ranch were scared by the 2020 August Complex wildfire. The Conservancy hasn’t yet settled on how to best address the consequences of the conflagration, but it seems likely that dead and dying trees adjacent to main roads will be culled, a dangerous task for professional sawyers since the wood is severely compromised, with two years of decay and beetle damage. Likewise, the Ranch has long hosted cattle grazing, an activity that will continue, in part for economic reasons. Raising livestock on a “nature preserve” is controversial; cows aren’t “wild” and they emit methane, contributing to climate change.
Less constrained by federal and state bureaucracy, nonprofit preserves offer an opportunity to experiment with stewardship approaches. Save the Redwoods League recently transferred management of Andersonia West – renamed Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ (tsih-ih-LEY-duhn), “Fish Run Place” in the Sinkyone language – to the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a group of 10 native tribes whose ancestors were forcibly exiled by European American settlers. The Wildlands Conservancy has similarly indicated an interest in native involvement in land decisions.
Managing for a climate-changed future could consist of testing different plant and animal stewardship that anticipates a hotter, drier, or increasingly unpredictable planet. (Re-)incorporating humans into nature might entail cellphone- and plastic-free boundaries; creation of “hunting and gathering” gardens for campers and as part of educational visits to supplement, or replace, store-bought supplies; and comprehensive reuse and recycling. Leave no waste.
We’re at a kink in the ecosystem curve, with emerging new patterns of temperatures, rainfall, and animal migration. Potentially dangerous times, but also full of possibilities to help nurture emerging resilient ecosystems. There should be no reservations about making the most of our private reserves.