Sept 5, 2013 – Ask locals for a survey of the region’s natural treasures and you’re likely to hear most mention Big Chico Creek, Butte Canyon, the Sacramento River and a dozen other natural wonders. Often overlooked are the smaller sites, such as Little Chico Creek, which is seen by many as a mostly dry ribbon of rock cutting through back yards and beneath the occasional busy street.
But just a few miles out of town, the creek is what John Hunt, executive director of the Northern California Regional Land Trust (NCRLT), describes as “an entirely different animal.”
“Folks don’t realize seeing it in town that it’s perennial—the water runs year round in the upper reaches,” he said. “It’s a significant watershed and there’s a lot of fish in there. It’s quite wild, and very beautiful.”
The NCRLT recently focused efforts to ensure it remains that way, and on Aug. 26 announced it had successfully partnered with three landowners to secure conservation easements on a 364-acre area of Little Chico Creek Canyon near 10-Mile House Trail. The area is next to an already-protected parcel of Department of Fish and Wildlife property, creating a 530-acre, approximately one-mile-long stretch of the watershed forever protected from development.
The land is home to several sensitive species, including the Butte County checkerbloom plant, as well as the yellow warbler, western pond turtle and foothill yellow-legged frog. By Hunt’s estimate, “hundreds of other species” also live or visit the area throughout the year.
The nonprofit NCRLT works with various other agencies and landowners to purchase development rights on wilderness and agricultural lands in Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties, to ensure they won’t be stripped of their resources or developed for other purposes. To date, they have helped secure conservation easements on roughly two dozen properties totaling more than 18,000 acres, including swaths along Chico’s Greenline, a long-standing boundary in southwest Chico demarcating fertile agricultural land from land available for future development. In the case of the Greenline, these easements ensure the land has legal protection if political policies change to allow it to be developed.
Funding for conservation easements for the Little Chico Creek Canyon project largely came from the California Wildlife Conservation Board’s (WCB) Oak Woodlands Conservation Program. Other funding came from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Rose Foundation and community contributions, which Hunt noted are essential to continuing the group’s work.
“Our goal is to capture and conserve as much of this landscape as we can before it’s lost,” said Hunt, who took over the executive-director position at NCRLT earlier this year after former executive director Jamison Watts left to work with the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, a similar organization north of San Francisco.
“Conserving these open-space areas greatly protects the property values, quality of life and aesthetic values of our local landscape,” Hunt said.
Once the easements have been established, the NCRLT cooperates with landowners to monitor the properties and make sure they are used as intended. The ongoing process includes annual site visits.
“We have an obligation to ensure that the resources are conserved and the objective of the easement is preserved for perpetuity,” he said.
Hunt described the NCRLT’s work as “sizeable and very complex.” Working with landowners, researching properties (which includes reviewing mineral, surface and water rights) and securing funding for a single project can sometimes take several years.
“Our end-game is always to establish these conservation easements,” he said, “and it requires a lot of long-view strategizing. We’re continuously looking for new opportunities and always in discussions with several landowners.”