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Mitigation Easement Protects Historic Walker Ranch and Endangered Species Habitat

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, Calif., Jan. 22, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- An historic 400 acre ranch in Contra Costa County, home to the Walker family, the California tiger salamander, San Joaquin Kit Fox, western burrowing owl and the California red-legged frog, will remain forever protected thanks to the teamwork of the family, an energy solutions company, and the California Rangeland Trust. Through that unique partnership, the Walker family will continue to operate the ranch they love; and the species the ranch supports will benefit from good land management practices. 

In the early 1980's the Walker family, who has raised cattle on the Walker Ranch at the Altamont Pass for nearly 100 years, was approached by a wind energy company that wanted to put windmills on their land to produce power for the surrounding communities. The Walkers agreed.  With the lease of surface rights, that company put hundreds of windmills on the tops of the ranch's largest hills. Those windmills provided power to the East Bay for two dozen years without fail.

Years later, the wind technology on the ranch needed updating for increased efficiency. Commonly called "re-powering" by locals, the energy company replaced the aging windmills with 15 larger and more efficient, 3.2mw Siemens turbines. That upgrade required the company to build new roads and slightly alter the landscape, triggering the requirement for a new permit.

During the permitting process, the energy company found out that the new roads would impact the habitat of the California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog, San Joaquin kit fox and burrowing owl, all of which thrive on the cattle-grazed wind farm.  State and federal laws mandate the loss of those habitats must be mitigated by the permanent protection of similar habitat nearby. Together, the energy company and the Walker family found a viable solution to the problem using a conservation easement held by the Rangeland Trust. Because the Walker family employs sustainable practices to manage their ranch, the energy company was able to use 400 acres of the 1,956 acre Walker ranch near the wind farm for mitigation.

Mitigation easements are similar to other types of conservation easements in that the land is protected from development in perpetuity. The difference is that when a mitigation easement is purchased, it is usually done so by a large corporation or entity at the direction of a state or federal agency.  It protects land containing wetlands, wildlife habitats or other ecological areas and then sets it aside to compensate for loss of lands of similar ecological value through development.

"We feel honored to be able to help the Walkers, who are long-time advocates of the beef industry and rangeland conservation, forever protect the ranch they call home," said Nita Vail, CEO of the California Rangeland Trust. "Everyone who drives in the East Bay will be able to view this portion of the beautiful rolling hills of the Altamont forever." 

Conservation of the property also meets the goals of the Conservation Lands Network, a conservation plan for the region completed by the Bay Area Open Space Council, with participation from over 100 scientists and land managers.  The plan emphasizes the importance of rangelands and ranchers, whose management practices support the incredible diversity of plants and animals found in our area.

"This mitigation easement is another case where government agencies are endorsing the work of cattle ranchers to sustainably manage their land for generations," said Darrel Sweet, California Rangeland Trust Chairman. "The Walker family ranch is one example of how good stewardship is protecting the environment."

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the energy company and the Rangeland Trust have now entrusted the Walkers to sustainably manage the habitat of the California tiger salamander, and the California red-legged frog, San Joaquin kit fox and burrowing owl in that area for decades to come.

SOURCE California Rangeland Trust

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