The Sierra Valley wetlands are an ever-changing, thriving home for a wide array of flora and fauna. Photos by Andrew Wright

Feather River Land Trust

The Serengeti of the Sierras

The wide-open vistas of Sierra Valley inspire visitors and locals alike. Along with scenic enjoyment and working ranchlands, this unique landscape is incredibly important for many reasons.

The 120,000-acre Sierra Valley rivals Lake Tahoe in size and its wetlands form the headwaters of the Middle Fork Feather River, which contributes to the California State Water Project.

The valley’s seasonal and permanent wetlands support the greatest diversity and abundance of birds in the entire Sierra Nevada — more than 230 species — and are a key stopover on the Pacific Flyway.

Its unique location at the intersection of the Sierra Nevada, Great Basin and Cascade eco-regions helps to explain the unusual variety of mammals that inhabit or pass through the valley every year.

A flurry of snow falls on cranes in the Sierra Valley, with cows placidly grazing in the distance. 

Look for western meadowlark in the sagebrush uplands and American avocets and white-faced ibis in the wetland channels.

Sierra Valley is also botanically rich, and springtime provides a great opportunity to see unique species like Sierra Valley evening primrose and Beckwith’s violet blooming.

Sierra Valley is also home to working ranches and diversified agriculture allowing for generations of families to make a living on the land. American and European immigrants first started moving to Sierra Valley at the time of the Gold Rush, establishing dairy farms that served the mining communities west of the Sierra crest. Over the next decades, more settlers arrived and soon working cattle ranches covered the entire 120,000-acre valley floor.

With plentiful water and deep soils, the meadows of Sierra Valley were ideal ranchland. In fact, the success of ranching in Sierra Valley helps to explain why the valley is still one of the most intact natural landscapes in California.

The Feather River Land Trust, a locally based nonprofit organization, works to conserve large intact landscapes, like the Sierra Valley. Since its inception in 2000, together with members and partners, FRLT has successfully conserved 47,240 acres in Sierra Valley, Red Clover Valley, American Valley, Genesee Valley, Indian Valley and the Lake Almanor Basin.

Land conservation is done for a variety of reasons and is part of the mission of FRLT. Conservation of priority lands includes special places that are close to schools for outdoor classrooms, wildlife habitat, wetland and riparian features, cultural uses and agricultural production.

The yellow-headed blackbird is one of many birds on the National Audubon Society’s “Special Status Species” list, and is one of many birds that needs exceptional protection due to their rarity or loss of suitable habitat. The Sierra Valley, as a designated IBA (Important Bird Area), is considered an essential habitat for breeding, wintering and migrating birds such as the yellow-headed blackbird.

Land conservation is done in partnership with landowners, and most properties stay as working ranches with protections prescribed by permanent conservation easements.

Conservation easements are the primary tool for protecting the mountain valleys of the Feather River watershed, which are mostly privately owned. A conservation easement financially benefits landowners who choose to sell some development rights and prevent subdivision.

One of the very first conservation easements that FRLT partnered on was with the Genasci Family of Sierra Valley.

Upon signing the option contract to enter into a conservation easement during his 95th birthday in 2004, Attillio Genasci stated to founding Director Paul Hardy, “The land belongs to future generations, and the land also belongs to the general public. They drive through this valley. They enjoy it. It doesn’t cost them a penny, and it doesn’t cost me a penny. It’s one of the natural wonders. It’s there for humanity. And we dare not destroy it any more than we’d cap the geysers in Yellowstone or put the Bridal Veil Falls of Yosemite in a pipe. I think we have a natural wonder here that I’ll do my best to preserve.”

Another way FRLT conserves land and water is by fee-title acquisition of properties with exceptional ecological and cultural values. The Sierra Valley Preserve is FRLT’s most recent conservation success. This 2,500-acre property took 13 years of work and three land transactions to complete.

The Sierra Valley Preserve started in 2003, when FRLT partnered with the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Business Council to acquire its first property, a 575-acre parcel in the heart of Sierra Valley owned by rancher Tony Maddalena.

The wildflowers in Sierra Valley take over in warm weather, exploding into a wash of brilliant color against a moody skyline.

Now known as the Maddalena Preserve, FRLT owns and manages this property for multiple uses. In 2014, FRLT partnered with the Nature Conservancy to conserve the 331-acre Smith Ranch (formerly the Folchi Ranch), a key property with large wetlands close to the beginning of the Middle Fork.

In 2016, FRLT purchased the 1,630-acre Bulson Ranch (recently the Noble Ranch) with the support of the Northern Sierra Partnership adding a large, diverse property with a rich human history to complete the preserve.

The Sierra Valley Preserve includes channels of the Middle Fork and a rich variety of habitats, including wetland marshes, open water, meadows and upland areas of sagebrush, spring wildflowers and native bunchgrasses. The upland habitats support a diversity of wildlife such as pronghorn, American badger, coyote, sage thrasher and the Sloat and Doyle deer herds.

The Sierra Valley Preserve was conserved by the Land Trust to not only protect water and wildlife, but also for public recreation, education and enjoyment. The preserve will offer exceptional opportunities for exploring the land’s ecology, wildlife and cultural and agricultural heritage.

FRLT is currently working on a management plan for the Sierra Valley Preserve, which it expects to complete in winter of 2017.

The preserve will be managed much like the Maddalena property, which has become a successful example of managing land for a variety of uses and values including wildlife habitat, wetlands and water, sustainable agriculture, cultural and historical preservation, low-impact recreation and educational opportunities.

Targeted grazing for habitat enhancement will continue on the Maddalena unit, and will be considered as an important management tool for the rest of Sierra Valley Preserve.

This map directs curious nature lovers to the Sierra Valley, where there are birds to be counted, wetlands to kayak and native plants exploding into life with the arrival of spring weather.

For now, public access is limited to the Maddalena portion of the preserve. The Maddalena property is the only private property in Sierra Valley where the public has direct access to the wetland ecosystem for walking, canoeing and kayaking, nature photography and exceptional birding.

Winter storm damage and flooding has caused damage to the corral parking area, interpretative signs and fences. Be mindful when parking and walking and for any questions about current conditions contact FRLT at 283-5758.

Expanded public access in the other portions of the preserve will be developed over time. Tours of the preserve will be offered free to the public this spring and summer. Visit frlt.org.

One thought on “Feather River Land Trust

  • April 27, 2017 at 10:09 pm
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    Can interested visitors tour this area by helicopter?

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