Environment / Nature

Wildlife corridor under Highway 101 enters planning stage

Crossing at Rocks Ranch would connect the Santa Cruz and Gabilan mountains.

A recent land acquisition on the Monterey/San Benito County line is planned for use as a wildlife corridor for regional fauna. The corridor would include a crossing under Highway 101 near the eucalyptus grove.

On Feb. 11, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County announced it would acquire 2,600 acres of Rocks Ranch. The trust’s Executive Director Stephen Slade told BenitoLink that Rocks Ranch is a “must protect” project because it would enable wildlife to safely cross 101 and connect the Santa Cruz Mountains with the Gabilan Range. Wildlife found at Rocks Ranch include bobcats, golden eagles, and California red-legged frogs. There are also signs of Native American cultural artifacts, such as bedrock mortars.  

There is no cost estimate for the San Benito wildlife crossing. A crossing along Highway 17 near Laurel Road in Santa Cruz County is expected to cost about $6 million, but its terrain is unlike the Highway 101 site. There is also no timeline for when the corridor at Highway 101 will be established, but Slade said the crossing under Highway 17 took about seven years to complete, from property acquisition to construction.

“In addition, the acquisition will keep this 2,600 acres forever wild,” Slade said.

Graniterock Vice President Aaron Johnston said the company, which owns property near the eucalyptus grove, is engaged with the land trust to determine Graniterock’s operation impacts on the proposed corridor.

“Graniterock recently partnered with both the Santa Cruz Land Trust and UC-Santa Cruz on a bobcat habitat preference and connectivity study,” Johnston said. “Insights from this study suggest Graniterock’s current operations and land management support connectivity.”

Focused on protecting flora and fauna, Slade said public access is not an immediate or short-term goal, but it could be a long-term possibility if funding is available. 

“We’ll want to wait until our two big access projects—trails at San Vicente Redwoods and our Watsonville Slough Farm—are up and running,” he said.  

Rocks Ranch owner Ben Bingaman, who will keep 60 acres near Highway 101 that are part of the four nodes under zoning dispute related to Measure K, said he had been in discussion with the land trust for about two years. The property is currently used for cattle grazing. He said he will continue to run cattle on the property for 10 years, which will be reevaluated at that time.

As for the timing of the sale, Bingaman said that as he gets older and his children lack interest in managing the property, he wants to make sure the land is protected. He said he sees it as his responsibility to keep the wildlife safe.

“My issue really is who is going to do it long-term, in perpetuity,” Bingaman said. “That’s why now.”

Bingaman opted for the land trust because he said he wanted an organization that knew how to manage the land to protect wildlife. Preserving habitat is not just about leaving the land undisturbed, he said, but providing maintenance to Lake Maxine and watering holes to ensure the water supply for cattle and wildlife.

“If you didn’t manage them, probably in 10 years they would all dissipate, and when they dissipate, no water—no wildlife,” Bingaman said. 

He said he turned to the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County rather than the San Benito Agricultural Land Trust because of its larger size and resources. 

“Santa Cruz has the infrastructure and the management in place,” Bingaman said. “I think San Benito Land Trust will get there, but they’re probably 20 years [away]. It takes time.”

He said during the last drought when Lake Maxine dried up, he had 45,000 gallons of water delivered to the property for the wildlife. 

“A real hardcore environmentalist would say that’s nature. I couldn’t do it and so I made the decision that we were going to truck in water,” Bingaman said, adding that the rain began two weeks later.

Besides the wildlife corridor, Bingaman is working to refine his vision for developing the Rocks Ranch node, which he said will happen whether Measure K is approved or not. He said he considered seven housing projects for the property that ranged from 900 to almost 2,000 units. The last proposal got to the contract signing stage, but Bingaman said he could not pull the trigger. Even though the deal was worth “a lot of money,” he said his other business interests gave him the ability to say no.

“You have a set of ethics, you have a set of moralities. Is it worth it to squeeze the blood out of the turnip? Sure you’ll have more money in your bank account. But for what end?”

 

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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. A San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He also was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily.