As development stalls, conservation easements expand most everywhere except South County.

Conservative on Conservation: Former Ventana Conservation and Land Trust Director Steve Craig tried applying old-school activism to South County, but found little support.

Brian Rianda’s dogs have never gotten fleas in the nine years he’s lived and ranched at the top of Chualar Canyon, which he attributes to healthy biodiversity. 

“In Salinas, raccoons, rats and possums are all problematic. Here we have all those, but they don’t seem to bother anything,” he says. Less urban critters – badgers, coyotes, deer and mountain lions among them – also call the ranch home.

Rianda donated his 2,000 acres as a conservation easement to the Ag Land Trust three years ago, after retiring as the group’s director. “As far as ranchland goes, it’s small,” he says. 

But small parcels can make a big impact, says Chris Fischer, who after more than a decade with The Nature Conservancy became executive director of Santa Lucia Conservancy in Carmel Valley last September. Through small easements carved out by the developers of Santa Lucia Preserve, the group has managed to string together significant stretches of habitat without banking on large landowners to donate or sell large parcels below market rate.

“We’re seeing tremendous conservation outcomes even though it’s a collection of small pieces knitted together,” she says. “It’s a really lovely mosaic of some of the most important native habitat types in central California.” 

The group manages enough 30 – to 50-acre easements to total nearly 8,000 acres, protecting contiguous stretches of grasslands, and habitat for rare tricolored blackbirds and spotted owls. 

But even as land trusts in Monterey County manage waiting lists for prospective donors and sellers, a trust based in Lockwood is calling it quits after a decade. 

“We were hoping to fill a completely different niche,” says Steve Craig, former director of Ventana Conservation and Land Trust. “It never took off, even though there are some very wealthy landowners who would certainly benefit [from easements].” 

He says his vision of conserving many wild and ranched parcels of about 30 acres each never got the street cred it needed. “In our experience, the land trust movement is not compatible with bona fide farming areas, because the farmers want to reserve the right to subdivide,” Craig explains. “We were trying to extend ideas of the ’60s and ’70s out to the edge of wilderness,” he says.

In its 10-year lifetime, Ventana acquired two small, deeply discounted demonstration easements, where the group cleaned up abandoned trucks and trash. Craig is looking for takers to absorb those plots as he dissolves the nonprofit. 

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Most of the group’s manpower in its waning years went to battle hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by oil companies in South County. Now that there’s a federal lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management underway, Craig says it’s out of his hands: “What you see now are a number of lawyers and specialists. You don’t see citizen-led movements.” 

Some activists see room for grassroots growth, spurred in part by the Occupy movement. Susan Raycraft, co-founder of the South Monterey County Rural Coalition, says the group plans to incorporate as a nonprofit. 

The coalition may pick up some of Ventana’s slack when it comes to fighting fracking, but it’s working on other issues too. To support its first project, the group applied in March for a Community Foundation for Monterey County grant to combat invasive yellow star thistle. 

The coalition is hosting a potluck to meet lawmakers on April 20. Congressman Sam Farr, D-Carmel; Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville; and County Supervisor Simon Salinas are expected to attend.

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Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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