Sonora, CA – A tough Tuolumne supervisors’ decision came down to the prevailing opinion that Great Grey Owls in Ackerson Meadow may do just fine without an intervention for preservation but locally disappearing ranchlands might not.
In a close vote at their meeting this week, the Tuolumne supervisors decided not to support the transfer of Ackerson Meadow, a 400-acre parcel of historic timber and ranchland, to Yosemite National Park. However, it did choose to back four proposed mitigations put forth by a board-instigated stakeholders’ group that met several times to share perspectives and address interests and concerns over the transfer.
It is uncertain whether the board’s decision will carry any weight with owners Robin Wainwright and Nancy Ware Wainwright and the Trust for Public Land (TPL), who, as previously reported, are in the midst of a sale agreement that would allow the Wainwrights, through Ware Holdings, LLC (Mrs. Wainwright’s family trust), to sell the property to TPL, enabling the agency to then donate it to the park. The property owners and park officials consider the transaction a matter of urgency, partly because the Wainwrights wish to see the land acquisition occur before Jan. 4, 2016; furthermore, they and park officials want the meadow to be celebrated as part of next year’s 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Should it continue, the transition would initialize with a planned boundary change of Yosemite Park to include the Ackerson Meadow property, followed by the final sale and subsequent donation through TPL to the park.
A resource and culturally rich property that happens to contain the highest population in the Sierra Nevada of endangered Great Grey Owls, the property is not considered highly developable but could certainly be sold in pieces, depending on use; possibly providing 130-acre grazing parcels or a very few home sites. At the meeting, the Erickson family, who has long-standing ties with the property both as renters and owners, expressed interest in buying back the land through a trust that would allow it to remain in grazing.
Landowners Rights Vs. Private Lands Loss
Discussion and public comment over the much contested agenda item took well over an hour before the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors called for a group decision that wound up passing in a 3-2 vote with District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt and District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce dissenting; both preferred altogether opposing the transfer. Among the vocal audience members opining against supporting the transfer of Ackerson Meadow to the park were members of the Erickson family and Tuolumne County Farm Bureau President Shaun Crook.
Crook said he spoke for nearly 400 members of the farm bureau that did not want the board to support moving private land to the public sector, where nearly 80 percent of county lands already reside. Crook, who also shared that he is a real estate professional, offered that the Yosemite Conservancy might consider purchasing an easement to allow historic uses of grazing and logging; or that the TPL might resell the property it to a complementary concern — or look at the ramifications of backing out of the contract.
Offering a counterpoint, Board Chair and District 4 Supervisor John Gray noted the county’s solid relationship with the park; its role as an economic engine that drives $600 million in business, and that, between its four gateways, about a quarter of the entrance fees comes back to the county. “Most of the business would not exist without the park – we saw that during the government shutdown and the Rim Fire,” Gray stated. With the nearby Highway 120 development of Rush Creek Lodge, a $48 million property bringing in more than 100 jobs and existing presence of Evergreen Lodge, which generates $10 million a year and provides about ten percent in TOT taxes on every dollar spent there, Gray said that having Ackerson Meadow become part of Yosemite National Park could be a further boon to the area. He also added that the park annually provides $200,000 towards local transportation and supported the county’s Evergreen Road application that garnered $12 million to fund maintenance and improvement costs there.
Back in March the supervisors reviewed details surrounding the planned sale of Ackerson Meadow after being contacted to provide comment, as required by the federal government. At the time, the board agreed that a stakeholder group representing all parties should form to consider and propose mitigative actions that might make the transfer amenable to all the participants. Along with the owners, neighbors, TPL, park and forest service officials, the committee included County Administrator Craig Pedro, Supervisor Gray, and District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan.
Good Faith Efforts, Mitigations
At Tuesday’s meeting, before and as Pedro presented the stakeholder group’s proposed mitigations, he, the board and the rest of the group members expressed appreciation numerous times for the collective efforts that were made to work well and in good faith together.
At the county’s request, the stakeholders enabled a mitigation to allow Evergreen Road to serve as a boundary line for the property transfer, with Yosemite’s interest locating east of the road and Stanislaus National Forest’s portion running just west of it. In a letter to Stanislaus National Forest (STL) Supervisor Jeanne Higgins describing the boundary that it would accept, Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher provided a transfer map (see left image box for accompanying map images) that had additionally been amended to reflect requests made by those with local grazing interests. The letter also confirmed that Yosemite and STL would work together on the adjustment to allow for what was described as enhanced management of the parcels. It also indicated that, while the landowner and potential donors agreed to the boundary, certain aspects might require Congressional legislation, such as eventual plans to provide boundary fencing.
Concerns over Evergreen Road led to a second mitigation, which involves TPL agreeing to provide the county with an easement deed for the Evergreen Road segment of the property. In the draft deed presented at the meeting, the county is granted an easement and right-of-way for a public road, public utilities and other adjunct necessities; it also states that the public would have use of the easement without fee or toll payments. Superintendent Neubacher additionally provided assurances in a letter to the supervisors that the park holds no intentions of creating a parking area or building a trailhead but only plans on providing additional habitat for Great Grey Owls and other species while managing the land in similar fashion to other wilderness areas.
Addressing property tax impacts to the county, as part of a third mitigation TPL submitted a draft agreement to grant the county a lump sum of just over $15,000, intended to effectively offset ten years’ worth of property taxes losses on the parcel at its current assessment rate. The grant does not impede any additional funds that may be directed to the county through the federal payment in lieu of taxes program.
Preserving Ranchlands Might Even Help The Owls
Despite the supervisors’ strong support for private landowner rights, their decision really came down to concerns over the loss of ranchlands and the stakeholders’ inability to adequately mitigate for it. Grazing, while still allowable under STF rules, is not on Yosemite parkland.
In nearly scoffing tones, members of the Erickson family recounted how an earlier meadow they previously owned was overtaken for preservation purposes by the Forest Service. Now overgrown, they say it does not seem to attract Great Grey Owls but that the birds seem to prefer the grazing lands they use. In another part of the grazing loss mitigation, the stakeholders had all consented to support a UC Davis study on owl population impacts due to grazing. However, several people with ranching backgrounds questioned the need; further venturing to opine that maintaining ranching onsite would provide better land stewardship of Ackerson Meadow than if it became that much more Yosemite acreage for the park to preserve.
While he did not want to deny the owners’ personal property rights to sell the property, District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer said he could not support its transfer to Yosemite and hoped that, between the owners and TPL, both would come up with an alternative that would keep the land in grazing. “Every time I see lands changing hands and being differently purposed, or new regulations that restrict cattle ranching, I see the Highway 108-120 corridor becoming another Tracy, and that scares me to death,” he stated. Supervisor Royce, in a voice nearly choked with emotion, called the decision very difficult, as all points being made were valid. But, he finally concluded, “What my gut says, from everything I know in my life from growing up in Tuolumne County…if we support this and it moves forward, I feel like [the meadow and surrounding area] will change.”
Supervisor Brennan questioned what is really known about Great Grey Owls’ real needs to exist and commented there might well be a correlation with grazing. Speaking regretfully, she summarized, “The foothill country is critical as habitat value…even losing a small amount of [grazing] capacity puts cattle grounds in jeopardy — I do not know at what point we can lose capacity and not start losing ranches.”