Following the heated battle over the Panoche Valley Solar Farm, Panoche Valley Preserve opened in August as conservation land to mitigate the environmental effects of the farm.
Sitting on the conjunction of Panoche Road and Little Panoche Road, the 26,400-acre preserve that extends into Fresno County is held in perpetuity as conservation land. Covering over half of the Panoche Valley floor, the preserve is part of Center for Natural Lands Management, which manages over 70 preserves in California and three preserves in Washington. Most of the land sits on what was previously Silver Valley Ranch and a large portion of the preserve is adjacent to Bureau of Land Management land. The preserve is not open to the public.
Panoche Valley Preserve Manager Chris Hauser stated that much of the land is grassland and is suitable habitat for the state- and federally-listed species displaced by the solar farm, such as San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat, blunt-nosed leopard lizard and San Joaquin antelope squirrel. Of the 26,400 acres, 11,400 are rugged terrain going into the foothills, which Hauser notes that, while not entirely suitable of all species displaced, it is supportive habitat for the San Joaquin antelope squirrel.
Deborah Rogers, Center for Natural Lands Management director of conservation science and stewardship, told BenitoLink that along with supporting the above mentioned species, conservation of the land produces an umbrella effect for other sensitive species including “California tiger salamander, California condor, San Joaquin wooly-threads, tri-colored blackbird, and vernal pool fairy shrimp.”
Greg Warrick, the center’s regional preserve manager for Central California, said that being in touch with the community is important.
"Conservation objectives can be compatible with cattle ranching,” Warrick said. “We continue to work with grazing operators to help manage the habitat. Grazing can be a valuable stewardship tool for conservation purposes."
According to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA), cattle often take the place of native grazers such as elk, antelope and deer species that might no longer be in an area. Prior to the early 1900s, the preserve was thriving farmland of slow crops including cantaloupe. Much of the native fauna and flora have been gone for some time. Native species are being reintroduced through displacement and relocation from the farm.
Warrick also emphasized the importance of being good neighbors and keeping things as they are.
“We don’t anticipate dramatic changes at the preserve,” Warrick said. “We’ll probably be ‘low profile’ neighbors and we’ll work with our neighbors, including BLM, toward our common interests.”
Rancher John Eade, one of three ranchers currently grazing cattle on the preserve, said that he has leased the land for several years. Along with cattle, Eade grazes sheep on private land and land managed by the BLM backing up to the preserve. He said he has worked successfully with all land managers and sees a healthy relationship developing with the management of Panoche Valley Preserve.
Eade said the number of cattle he grazes each year depends on resources available. He was keenly aware that the land is mitigation land and said that although he did not sell land for the preserve, the other ranchers did and they now lease the land they sold to graze cattle.
The Panoche Valley Solar Farm was reduced to about a third of its originally planned size, following lawsuits filed by three The Sierra Club, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife. It is now 1,300 acres and produces 130 megawatts of electricity.
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