Doug Parker looks at a map showing the Land Trust of Napa County’s 55,000 acres of protected lands — about 10 percent of the county — and sees more work to be done.
About 20 land-preserving projects are in the works, said Parker, the nonprofit group’s CEO. The focus ranges from oak woodlands to forests to rangeland to vineyards. A few projects could be wrapped up by year’s end and some of the bigger projects could close in 2016.
“This is a great time,” Parker said. “There’s probably some confluence of things that have come together. We, I think, have more projects going now than we ever had.”
More than 1,500 land trusts operate in the United States. These nonprofit groups preserve land from being paved over, sometimes by buying it, but often by using methods that allow the land to remain in private ownership.
The Lake Berryessa area has been in the spotlight lately with President Barack Obama’s recent creation of Snow Mountain Berryessa National Monument. One of the Land Trust of Napa County’s upcoming deals involves protecting more than 2 square miles east of the lake.
Parker wouldn’t give details because the deal isn’t complete. But the state Department of Conservation is a partner in the undertaking and announced it involves two cow-calf ranches on 1,558 acres that is “important rangeland.”
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This rangeland won’t become part of the national monument, which includes only federal lands. Rather, the Land Trust will buy a conservation easement on the ranches, adding to the 136 easements it already holds. That will retire the development rights while keeping the land as private property.
Agricultural preservation usually involves easements that allow landowners to retain ownership and still pursue their agricultural work, Parker said.
In other cases, the Land Trust buys land or has land donated to it. It protects lands for a variety of reasons, ranging from agricultural and scenic value to the diversity of native plants and wildlife.
For example, the Land Trust bought the Dunn-Wildlake Ranch in 2006 for $18.8 million. This 3,030 acres of Howell Mountains ridgeline between Calistoga and Angwin has oak woodlands, chaparral and pine forests.
Parker took a map of Napa County and pointed out targeted preservation areas. There is the Napa Valley floor and its vineyards, the mountain ridges that frame the valley to the east and west and the region in the eastern county near Lake Berryessa that has serpentine soils.
“We’re not trying to protect all of Napa County by any means,” Parker said. “We’ve actually prioritized most of the county in terms of what we think should be protected.”
Parker doesn’t view protecting these conservation areas as being too ambitious of a goal. The next 15 years to 20 years will be important, he said.
“Fifty years from now, 100 years from now, I don’t think there will be a huge amount of land conservation going on in Napa,” Parker said. “Because hopefully, we will have done our jobs and finished it. There will be stewardship, there will always be management of land, but the actual acquisitions will be over at some point. Certainly the major ones.”
The Land Trust has an annual budget of about $1.7 million, Parker said. Money pays for such things as staff, title reports, appraisals and land stewardship. Much of the revenue comes from the group’s 1,200 members. For land and easement purchases, the nonprofit must find grants and other funding sources.
Another Napa County group with a land preservation mission is the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District. This public agency does such things as manage Bothe-Napa Valley State Park and Moore Creek Park.
It’s common for Bay Area counties to have both a land trust and an open space district, Parker said. He mentioned Marin and Sonoma counties as examples.
“The open space district is probably more focused on recreational management than we are,” he said.
The Land Trust and the open space district partner on projects. For example, the Land Trust has worked for 15 years on a 433-acre land purchase to provide better hiker access to Cedar Roughs Wilderness Area west of Lake Berryessa. The district is to own and manage the land.
Open space district board members are exploring whether to seek a parks and open space tax measure in 2016. Money from a successful measure would go to the district, not the Land Trust.
But, Parker said, land trusts can work with open space districts that have tax revenues to secure matching money for government grants. This allows them to make land and easement purchases. Other land trusts are taking this approach.
“We’re actually at a bit of a competitive disadvantage,” he said about the local lack of a tax for the open space district.