The beautiful rolling hills surrounding the Tri-Valley region are emblematic a trademark of California’s golden beauty.
Time and progress have transformed many of these acres into homes, business parks and shopping centers, but at least one organization is working to preserve a portion of California’s natural scenery.
The California Rangeland Trust (CRT) is a nonprofit land trust that facilitates partnerships between ranchers who want to maintain their land as agricultural open space and funders who want to permanently protect the land. The ranchers choose to sell or donate their developmental property rights to CRT by granting a conservation easement onto their land. This allows California landowners to retain ownership of their land and continue to work it, providing local food, clean water, fresh air and abundant wildlife. Since its inception in 1998, the organization has permanently protected more than 340,000 acres of open range.
In Alameda County, CRT has helped to preserve almost 1,000 acres. CEO Michael Delbar said it may not seem like much, but it is a huge contribution to the local economy in terms of labor hires, money spent on feed at local stores and other economic factors.
“It’s 1,000 acres still producing local food and still providing for the local economy,” said Delbar. “California has lost over 500,000 acres of ranchland in the past 10 years that was converted to industry or development. These 1,000 acres have been saved in perpetuity. They are a wildlife habitat that will stay there and will be producing food.”
Delbar explained most of the CRT projects in Alameda County have been the result of mitigation efforts, meaning developers and utility companies fund the sale of easements of land to make up for habitat destruction caused by their development projects.
Several hundred acres of preserved land in Sunol served these kind of mitigation efforts and kept an 850-acre ranch in the family that has owned it for 100 years. Tim Koopmann is ranching the land his father and grandfather worked before him. Aside from 50 acres sold to CalTans in the 1960s to facilitate building the 680 freeway, the ranch has remained intact since its purchase in 1918.
When faced with bloated inheritance taxes from the IRS after his father unexpectedly died of a heart attack before estate planning could be completed, Koopman had to consider the gut-wrenching move of selling off his ranch.
“I didn’t know how I was going to pay (the IRS) without the sale of the ranch in its entirety,” Koopman recalled. “There’s a huge amount of speculative interest in any property in the Bay Area. We have been approached by developers and land speculators before and we could have taken that option, but there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this land.”
Koopmann ended up selling the developmental rights to two parcels of property in 2003 and 2005. When he was finished, he had paid his inheritance taxes with checks totaling $747,000. The land he preserved included a tiger salamander breeding pond that replaced a similar habitat destroyed by local development. He later preserved a third parcel in 2016 to mitigate a project by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).
“This is the way most people have chosen to deal with the loss of habitats,” Koopmann said. “It worked out very well for us. We have been caring for the land since 1918, now through four generations, and have had the critters here in place.”
Koopman and his progeny will continue to own and ranch his land – he has simply given up the right to subdivide and develop it. He takes stewardship of his land and wildlife seriously, partnering with UC Berkeley to help educate the next generation of conservation enthusiasts, hosting students and tours on his land.
“What we are doing, it really matters,” Delbar said of CRT’s work. “Not only to the population in general, but to the ranchers. One of the most rewarding things about this job is being able to keep the ranching resource in place … that we can close a project and know that ranching family won’t break up, that land won’t get developed, we won’t lose that open space and fresh air and water. That is so heartwarming and shows the benefit of converting these lands that wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t been able to put that easement in place.”
CRT holds easements from the Oregon border to San Diego. They currently are taking 250,000 acres of property through the preservation process. The group is funded by private donations and public funds from the state and federal government. For more information or to donate, visit www.rangelandtrust.org or call 916-444-2096.