Lassen Foothills Project

Posted: Aug 1, 2005
Written by: 
Brendan Smith
 Blue oak on the Gray Davis Dye Creek Preserve
Photo by Harold Malde

The Lassen Foothills Project covers more than 900,000 acres between the towns of Redding and Chico in Tehama County at the northernmost end of California's Central Valley.

Objective: The project, which includes working cattle operations at Vina Plains and Dye Creek preserves, ensures the sustainability and economic viability of local ranches and conserves important habitat for area plant and animal species.

Participants: The Nature Conservancy (TNC), local ranchers, Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy, Deer Creek Watershed Conservancy, Mill Creek Conservancy, Tehama County Resource Conservation District, Tehama Fire Council, Partners In Education, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, California Department of Fish and Game, California Department of Water Resources, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), U.S. Forest Service, California Wildlife Conservation Board, California Bay-Delta Authority, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service, California State University-Chico

History: The Lassen Foothills extend from Lassen Peak in the southern Cascade Range to the Sacramento River, a rolling expanse of mixed conifer forest, blue oak woodlands, wildflower fields, and swaying grasslands interspersed with numerous rare plant and animal species.

Shooting stars, larkspur and other wildflowers sprout in rings of color around seasonal vernal pools. Five major tributaries of the Sacramento support steelhead trout and Chinook salmon. Less than 5 percent of California's unique vernal pools still exist, and native grasslands, which once covered 20 million acres, have been reduced to less than 2 million acres by industrial development and conversion to agriculture. The Lassen Foothills survive because large ranches, along with publicly owned lands totaling almost 300,000 acres, have kept much land from being developed or subdivided. The area represents one of the largest unfragmented, biologically rich landscapes in California.

In 1982, TNC purchased approximately 1,500 acres northwest of Chico at the northeastern end of the Great Central Valley to create the Vina Plains Preserve. The initial objective was to protect the property's vernal pools and four endangered plant species that grow in or near the pools. The vernal pools also support endangered fairy shrimp (Branchinecta conservatio and B. lynchi) and tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus packardii), an important food source for migrating waterfowl. The short grasses surrounding the pools provide nesting habitat for songbirds. "It's a really botanically rich grassland and a rare grassland," says TNC senior ecologist Rich Reiner. "Most of the Central Valley has been converted to agriculture, so the few grasslands left on the valley floor are particularly important." To help grow the preserve, TNC purchased adjoining property and transferred conservation easements on approximately 3,000 acres to the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Wetland Reserve Program.

Vernal pools form in depressions underlain by rocky, impervious soils. Though they hold water only seasonally, the pools provide important habitat for many species.
Photo by Harold Malde

In 1987, TNC signed a 25-year lease with the state of California to manage the Dye Creek Preserve, a 37,540-acre parcel of state trust land located between the city of Red Bluff and Lassen National Forest. The preserve includes blue oak woodlands, grasslands, volcanic buttes, wildflower fields, and riparian forest used by mountain lion, black bear, gray fox, and California's largest migratory deer herd. Dye Creek flows westward toward the Sacramento River beneath the vertical cliffs of Dye Creek Canyon, home to the rare foothill yellow-legged frog (Rana boylii). Mill Creek, on the preserve's southern border, supports steelhead trout as well as both fall and winter runs of Chinook salmon.

TNC launched the Lassen Foothills Project in 1997 in order to protect a larger portion of the landscape. The project combines acquisition of conservation easements on adjacent ranches with expansion of the conservation and sustainable ranching techniques employed at the two preserves, including prescribed burning and rotational grazing. Neighboring ranchers have taken advantage of TNC's expertise and implemented the techniques on their own properties. "What I really like about this project is there are all these pieces that fit together," says Jake Jacobson, project director of the Lassen Foothills Project. "There's a nice synergy between conservation goals and the goals of a cattle rancher."

Accomplishments: TNC discontinued grazing at the Vina Plains Preserve in 1986 because cattle were trampling rare vernal-pool plants. The plants rebounded but eventually were choked out by invasive weeds, which previously had been eaten by grazing cattle. In 1996, TNC contracted with a local rancher to resume grazing on the preserve under a plan that combined rotational grazing and prescribed burning to control invasive weeds, such as medusa-head grass and yellow star-thistle. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) conducts the burns with TNC staff and shares in their cost.

 Prescribed burns and rotational grazing are employed to keep invansive weeds at bay.
Photo by Rich Reiner
The Vina Plains Preserve is fenced into eight pastures. Each year, the two pastures most infested with weeds are burned and then rested during the following year. Rotational grazing prevents overgrazing and allows wildflowers and rare vernal-pool to plants recover. A three-year study undertaken by California State University-Chico in the late 1990s with funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that prescribed fires helped control invasive weeds. Reiner says that although prescribed burning is beneficial, it isn't a "silver bullet" because the burns can increase other nonnative weed species and/or reduce biodiversity if they are done too often. Careful monitoring is still necessary. The prescribed burns also help reduce the risk of wildfire danger. Some previously burned areas on the preserve have slowed or stopped local wildfires, CDF Division Chief Chuck Schoendienst says.

Each year, 2,000 to 5,000 acres are burned on the Dye Creek Preserve and neighboring ranches, says preserve program manager Peter Hujik. "One of the things that makes [TNC] unique as a conservation organization is that we actually own or manage land, so we are faced with the same issues that the neighboring landowners are faced with," Hujik says. "We have a more intimate understanding of land management issues." In 1997, Livestock Market Digest listed Dye Creek Preserve as one of the 25 best-managed ranches in the U.S.

In 1999, TNC acquired a conservation easement on the 36,000-acre Denny Ranch near Red Bluff. "The significance of this conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy is that it preserves our working cattle ranch as well as its native habitats," said Dusty de Braga, ranch manager for the Denny Land & Cattle Company. "Our mission is to have Denny Land & Cattle Company raising livestock 100 years from now, and this conservation easement will help ensure that we succeed."

To date, TNC has acquired easements on more than 60,000 acres to prevent development that would fragment the landscape

TNC's outreach efforts, including work by volunteers or educational visits by local residents, helped build community support for the sale of conservation easements. "People got to know us as not just a faceless organization, but people on the ground doing interesting work," Jacobson says. "They could see partnering with us." Local high-school students and volunteers have planted native grasses, trees, and shrubs on nearly 100 acres along Dye Creek, where a dam was removed to restore the creek bed. Currently, a 70-acre floodplain and some marshes are being restored to improve habitat for yellow-legged frogs and Western pond turtles.

To aid recovery of winter and spring Chinook salmon runs and steelhead trout, TNC has provided funding and technical expertise for the planned restoration of approximately 48 miles of Battle Creek and its tributaries below Mount Lassen. The $90 million project is the largest ever under the CALFED Bay-Delta Program, a collaboration of more the 25 state and federal agencies to restore the ecological health and improve water management in the Sacramento River Bay-Delta system.

Challenges/constraints: Encroaching development, mainly in the form of rural "ranchette" subdivisions, threatens to fragment the landscape of the Lassen Foothills and adversely impact salmon, deer, and other species that move between the foothills and the Sacramento River.

TNC already has lost some conservation easement deals because of escalating land prices, but expects to purchase conservation easements totaling several thousand acres this summer, Jacobson says. TNC and the State of California have no current plans to expand the size of either the Dye Creek or Vina Plains preserves.

TNC land managers face a continual challenge in finding more effective ways to combat invasive nonnative plants and animals and to protect native species. TNC continues to refine the prescribed burning program and currently is studying ways to eradicate nonnative bullfrogs at Dye Creek Preserve. A history of fire suppression has increased fuel loads in the upper reaches of Dye Creek Preserve, increasing the likelihood of severe wildfires. TNC is working with CDF and the Tehama Fire Council to protect at-risk communities and develop a wildfire response plan.

For more information see:

The Nature Conservancy-Lassen Foothills

Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy

California Bay-Delta Program
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