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Federal rangeland easement plan runs into California opposition

by Chris Hinyub, published

A controversial federal easement program is now being rejected by the California advocacy group which helped fund its genesis. Board members of the California Cattlemen's Association recently voted to oppose the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Foothills Legacy Area project, a voluntary program that pays California ranchers to set aside a portion of their land for conservation purposes.


In 2005, the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA) teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to finance the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition (CRCC)– a 101-member environmental organization dedicated to preserving open spaces within the state. Partners include agricultural and environmental groups such as Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund, as well as county boards of supervisors and other government agencies.


A coalition report issued in 2007 found that some of the 28 million acres of foothills adjoining the Central Valley and Inner Coast Ranges "required conservation action" within 2 to 10 years. The most threatened parts of these rangelands are outlined on this map (PDF), a product of the coalition study. According to coalition director Tracy Schohr, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials used the Rangeland Coalition map “as a focus area” for an easement policy proposal.


Thus, the California Foothills Legacy Area was born.


Here's how the proposal works: landowners would voluntarily sign over a portion of their property (the amount to be determined on a per property basis) to a land trust to ensure that it is permanently kept as open space. In return, property holders would receive a lump-sum payment from the federal government. The easements cannot be changed without agreement from both parties. Owners would control access to the easements and would only forfeit their right to develop the land, retaining all other rights to use it. The easement would remain a permanent fixture of the property, remaining in effect even after the land is sold.


Areas where easements have been proposed include the foothills of the Sierras from Calaveras to Madera counties, portions of the Sequoia foothills in Tulare and Kern counties, and the San Benito hills and foothills in southern Shasta county. Also included in the plan is a large area north of Red Bluff in northern Tehama County which has already been scheduled for development, causing tensions between county planners and the USFWS.


Now, the CRCC's own parent organization is rejecting the proposal.


Last week, CCA president Kevin Kester said in a statement that members oppose the plan "by a substantial margin.” The CCA has drawn up a resolution to be voted on at their annual convention in November. The reason the CCA is rejecting the easements, the resolution states, is because:


     “the California Foothill Legacy Area does not allow 3rd parties to hold, enforce and negotiate easements, not based on a statewide competitive process for easement funding.”


The independence of the CRCC was questioned by ranchers last year after the coalition promoted a number of “safe harbor agreements” to private landowners that would have given them immunity to certain provisions of the Endangered Species Act if they made certain improvements to their properties. The CCA withdrew its support of one such Northern California deal after members complained about the possible negative impact on neighboring landowners who chose not to participate.


The coalition was rebuffed again during a June 14 public hearing in Red Bluff. The meeting was part of a series of six scoping sessions by Fish and Wildlife officials that took place around the state to get feedback from farmers and ranchers on the Legacy Area proposal. Many participants were quick to scrutinize the coalition's involvement with the federal government and their true intentions regarding the program, while some ranchers and landowners praised the idea, saying that it would discourage development in sensitive areas. Unfortunately, no one from the coalition was in attendance. Schohr said in a statement after the meeting that "this is a Fish and Wildlife Service proposal."


The CRCC has slowly but surely been distancing itself from its federal partner wherever the easement plan is concerned. Capital Press reporter Tim Hearden recently pointed out:


     “Language on the plan's website that read, 'This initiative was developed in cooperation with the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition' has been changed to, 'This initiative was developed by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to help achieve the strategic goals' of the coalition.”


Despite its opposition to the legacy area, the CCA and rangeland coalition have stated that their relationship remains unchanged. Schohr “still represents the CCA and California ranchers first and foremost," said Stevie Ipsen, the association's communications director.


     "It's not that the coalition isn't widely supported," Ipsen said. "It's just that these two particular proposals weren't supported by ranchers, for the most part."


Mark Pelz, the Fish and Wildlife Service's chief of refuge planning in Sacramento has referred to the plan as “a carrot rather than a stick.” He says there would be nothing stopping nonparticipating landowners within the legacy area from developing or selling their land to developers.


The project's public comment period ends July 15. A planning update from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials can come as soon September, with a draft plan available for public review by the spring, says Pelz.

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