Foothills conservation proposal nixed due to local opposition

Federal officials end efforts to create a conservation easement area in California that could have included areas in San Benito County after facing local opposition from several counties.

United States Fish and Wildlife Services Director Daniel M. Ashe made a move that has definitively ended more than three years of efforts by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff members to promote a voluntary conservation easement program called the California Foothills Legacy Area in several Central California counties, including San Benito.

Under the proposed CFLA plan, private landowners within the area would have had the option to voluntarily sign on for a conservation easement that would keep the land in use as rangeland, but would limit the ability to development the land for other uses such as residential, industrial or commercial. Conservation easements offer a monetary gain to landowners to keep their properties in use as open space or for agricultural uses.

In a memo dated Dec. 3, Ashe wrote to Congressmen Kevin McCarthy and Ken Calvert, that the proposed legacy area “was developed using the Services’ land protection planning process,” which studies ways to conserve land by adding it to the National Wildlife Refuge System or other ways. “However, we do not establish new units of the Refuge System, like the proposed CFLA, without support from the local citizens; nor do we do so over the objections of Members of Congress who represent the affected areas,” he wrote.

Residents of San Benito County first heard about the California Foothills Legacy Area, which proposed to offer voluntary conservation easements in rangeland areas in the central and southern Sierra foothills as well as the Diablo Range, including San Benito County, in 2011. The original proposal included 325,000 acres of total rangeland in San Benito, Merced, Mariposa, Stanislaus, Tulare and Kern counties.

Early opposition of the proposal came from such south county landowners as John and Jae Eade, who sent letters of opposition to the fish and wildlife service, with John Eade also speaking out against the proposal at county supervisors' meetings.

Since the recent news broke, Eade said his position did not change since he sent his original letters to Mark Pelz, the chief of Refuge Planning for the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region.

In an initial letter sent in July 2011, the Eades said they opposed the California Foothills Legacy Area as owners of property in the designated area.

“The CFLA will, by design, severely restrict or eliminate all forms of economic growth and job creation on over 60 percent of San Benito County’s private lands,” they wrote. “A 500,000-acre multiple endangered species recovery area will destroy our tax base and decimate funding for schools and public services ‘in perpetuity.’”

Gardiner Hammond, who owns a ranch in San Benito County, said via email that he was supportive early on of hearing some additional proposed details of how the CFLA proposal would work, but said he shared the suspicions of many landowners and ranchers.

“It is difficult from a private property owner’s perspective to put a great deal of faith in a program that encumbers property in perpetuity and be confident that at the federal level, no further restrictions might be imposed,” he said.

Hammond, however, said that it is becoming increasingly difficult for families to operate local and family-owned grazing and grasslands in economically sustainable ways.

“So the problem still exists, but maybe some of the more local and regional conservation trusts are a better way to try and address it,” he said.

County supervisors in September 2012 signed a letter of opposition against the proposal. At the meeting, USFWS Chief Mark Pelz asked the board not to take action until the draft plan was completed. San Benito Resource Conservation District Director Michael Halperin expressed concern about the county getting involved in conservation easements, according to the minutes from the Sept. 25, 2012 meeting. RCD Board Member Lara Pangburn said the group supported the legacy program.

Supervisor Jerry Muenzer, who represented District 4 at the time and was reelected in November, said he questioned the ability of supervisors to zone land if the CFLA proposal were to move forward. The supervisors approved the letter of opposition unanimously.

USFWS staff members continued to host public meetings in areas they hoped to include in the proposal, though they drafted an alternate plan with a smaller footprint of 200,000 acres that eliminated San Benito County areas.

A draft environmental assessment report was released in the summer of 2013 that said “rangelands are among the least protected and most threatened.” According to the report, the goals of the CFLA plan included:

  • Conserve and maintain the existing diversity of grasslands, oak woodlands, vernal pools, riparian areas and wetlands in the foothill rangelands surrounding the Central Valley and the diversity of migratory birds and other wildlife they support
  • Contribute to the recovery and protection of threatened and endangered species on California rangelands, and reduce the likelihood of future listings under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Support the long-term viability of the ranching industry that supports these species by promoting opportunities for ranchers to participate in voluntary rangeland conservation efforts and provide incentives for cooperation.

In a letter sent in Aug. 2013, John and Jae Eade wrote that they were “appalled that the USFWS have spent nearly two years at great expense to the taxpayers to basically repackage the flawed 2011 version of the CFLA with a few new gimmicks.”

The Eades expressed specific concerns that USFWS had not been required to conduct a complete environmental impact review, as is required for developers.

“Why should ratepayers of S.D.G.&E/Sempre Energy be required to spend $55 million on an 11,500-page EIR/EIS when USFWS thinks it can sneak through with an in-house EA for a project that impacts 14-million acres?” they asked.

While the CFLA identified millions of acres of rangeland in California, the CFLA plan only included 325,000 acres in the original proposal and 200,000 in a preferred alternative presented in 2013.

USFWS had proposed easements that would be permanent, instead of easements that would expire after a set time. The environmental assessment noted that easements would prevent development and major land use changes. An appendix to the document included 11 specific restrictions including subdividing the property for residential, commercial or industrial uses; using or developing lands for game, fur, bird or fish farms; establishing or maintaining commercial feedlots; constructing any power generation facilities such as coal or gas-fired, wind, solar or hydroelectric other than to support uses of or activities on the Easement Area; and using lead ammunition for hunting or depredation shooting, among others.

Spokespeople from the USFWS office and the California Rangeland Trust did not immediately respond to requests for comments.

For more information on the California Foothills Legacy Area, click here.

Melissa Anderson

Melissa (Flores) Anderson is the former city editor of the Weekend Pinnacle and Hollister Free Lance, where she covered education, county government and more. She currently works for the College of Applied Sciences and Arts at San Jose State University, where she manages the College blog, newsletter and website updates. She has a master's in print journalism from the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.