On a bright, unseasonably warm morning in late October I attended a guided tour through some of the last remaining undeveloped land in Placer County. We had driven up highway 65 from Rocklin, and just past the outskirt of sprawl that rings the town of Lincoln when we reached Swainson’s Grassland Preserve. The SGP is 469 acres of open grassland, divided unevenly into three triangular parcels on both sides of the highway. The preserve sits on the eastern edge of the valley floor, roughly 150 feet above sea level. Swainson’s Preserve is named for the native hawk, threatened by encroaching human development, which is very active in this area. The acreage also provides critical habitat for species as varied as Western Burrowing Owls, the secretive Black Rail, and some of the few remaining vernal pools, habitats as unique as they are threatened.
Visiting the preserve when we did means entering a landscape baked in the unforgiving sun for the previous eight months. Most plants are either lying dormant or are dead. The ground is a cracked hardpan, sitting atop a thick layer of clay. It feels palpably desperate for moisture. Speeding past the land in a vehicle, one could be forgiven if they thought it devoid of life. But slowing down and stepping out into the area, a visitor can begin to see some of the flora and fauna that inhabit the land, even in these harsh conditions.
The first creatures you notice are the birds. Our morning was filled with them, despite the close proximity to a large, loud tractor tilling a nearby field, the incessant roar from the freeway and a constant fusillade that echoed from a close-by shooting range. Birding highlights included a pair, male and female, of Northern Harriers. I was unable to identify many of the species as they fluttered across the grassland, but the swooping, low flying harrier is as beautiful as it is easy to spot. My poor skills as a birder was largely to blame for this, but the captivating presence of Justin Wages, Land Manager for Placer Land Trust, also took my attention away from the skies. Swainson’s Preserve is one of many spaces managed by the Placer Land Trust, and Justin was kind enough to give us a guided tour, sharing an intimate account of the restoration work that was being done on the land.
I was immediately impressed with Mr. Wages. It can be very easy, when removed from the actual land, to imagine simple solutions to our environmental problems in vast generalizations and sweeping ideas. Encountering Mr. Wages, here on a small scrap of abused land that he clearly loves, I was reminded that the myriad of global crises we face are also all essentially local. Solutions to even the largest problems must be local or they will only cause more problems.
Justin seemed in many ways an embodiment of Wendell Berry’s “agrarian mind”, one that, with apologies for such a long quote “…is not regional or national, let alone global, but local. It must know on intimate terms the local plants and animals and local soils; it must know the local possibilities and impossibilities, opportunities and hazards… it depends and insists on knowing very particular local histories and biographies… the agrarian mind is less interested in abstract quantities than in particular qualities… it is interested- and forever fascinated- by questions leading toward the accomplishment of good work: What is the best location for a particular building or fence? What is the best way to plow this field?… Should this tree be cut or spared?… questions which can not be answered in the abstract, and which yearn not toward quantity but toward elegance. Agrarianism can never become abstract because it has to be practiced in order to exist.”[i]
It is endlessly refreshing and informative to meet people with the perfect combination of will, knowledge, and ability who are immersed in the landscape and dedicated to its healing. Mr. Wages began by discussing the history of the particular field we found ourselves in. How it came to be managed by PLT, and what previously had stood on the land. Apparently it had, at one point or another been an orchard. He knew the history behind how the landscape came to be, from the slow erosion that deposited fine clay soils here millions of years ago, on the shore of an ancient inland sea, to the more recent assault by non-native weeds and the compacting of the land by industrial farm tools. He knew the human history of the place. The site was dominated by an old barn that had also been repaired and restored, made a part of the land, as much habitat to owls and other creatures as the oaks and burrows in the surrounding fields. His mastery of the flora and fauna was evident and exceptionally practical.
He instantly identified native gum plants and other species of resilient perennials. He discussed with us the recent efforts at restoring a small creek running through the parcel. He pointed out a seemingly meaningless act of hard labor- a shallow depression literally scraped into the flat land by hand. What at first appears to be busy work in fact is crucial, because the shallow allows water to pool and accumulate in the soil rather than run off and away. The land, like much of the great valley, is remarkably flat. This flatness was a defining feature even prior to the extensive agricultural use, which could only have leveled the ground further, so small variations like this are an easy to overlook necessity.
Mr. Wages spoke openly about successes and failures. He was as excited about the secretive Black Rail that existed in the tall marsh grasses as he was about the recent misadventure of large scale acorn plantings – which resulted in a boon for ground squirrels but not many oaks. He was as passionate about the past of the landscape as he was the plans for the future. He clearly took pride in the preserves status as one of the few homes to year round burrowing owls, and talked about his plans for attracting more owls. He maintained the practical realism of a person attempting to do the best work he could, within the confines of his particular circumstances and resources.
The land revealed its life as we sat on it. A cursory glance and the only green one would likely see are the few massive oaks that dotted a fence line. Walking the land reveals a hidden stream, nestled into a near invisible depression. The banks overrun by tall green grass, sedge and other living vegetation. He pointed out the restorative plantings of willow and valley oak, as well as some native grasses.
We discussed the role that grazing has always played on this land. Without the native elk and pronghorn that would have naturally kept the grasses short, cattle grazing becomes both a necessity and a challenge to anyone working in restoration. Cattle are not a gentle touch, and fragile ecosystems can literally be trampled under hoof if the cows are not managed skillfully. Plantings need some fairly heavy duty fencing to keep the cows away. Yet without the cattle, grasses would naturally grow too high and thick, presenting both a fire hazard and an impossible obstacle for raptors in their management of the local rodent populations.
The lack of native herbivores and the cascading problems that their absence causes to this day are a reminder of just how much is truly missing from the land. Swainson’s Grassland Preserve was once prime grizzly habitat. The bears would have feasted on vast quantities of salmon, nearly gone now, but once overflowing virtually year round in the streams and rivers that flow out of the Sierra. The presence of elk would have resulted in migratory wolves. Restoration of this location will never be truly complete without the return of these creatures, a suggestion that is nothing but a hopeful prayer for the future. Returning to the reality of the present, the thorny issue of how best to manage cattle on the land was also evident at our next stop; PLT’s Doty Ravine Preserve.
Restoration of a more extensive riparian habitat at Doty Ravine Preserve was Mr. Wages first major work for PLT, and his pride at the successes and his continued passion for this particular preserve were evident from the first moment we entered the land. In researching the landscapes for this paper, I discovered that Mr. Wages’ early work on this project coincided with his diagnosis of stage-four colon cancer. Yet his passion was such that, during the drought “volunteers had planted wildflowers… Justin was worried the seeds might die if they didn’t get watered, so even though he was fresh out of surgery… he hiked out there in the heat, with a chemo bag slung over his shoulder, so he could water the seeds.”[ii] Someone who cares so much about a scrap of abused ex-farmland is someone who is worth listening to. He walked us across the fields and informed us about the various projects at work; Honeybee science and wildflowers, and the riparian restoration. He brought before and after photos to show us the changes to the land he had managed, so we could see the massive shift a few years of skilled care can accomplish.
Here we also had our only real encounter with any large fauna- a beautiful garter snake that was disturbed by our plodding along restorative plantings atop a former hedgerow. We did find owl pellets under a bat box, near a planted coyote bush. The size of the pellets suggested a Great Horned Owl spends a good deal of time perched on that particular lookout.
In general, the Doty Ravine Preserve could be divided into two major habitats – the higher, drier grasslands and the lower, wetter riparian corridor. The distinction was remarkable; as if someone had drawn a line in the dirt that delineated the lands with reliable water from those without. Making your way to the wetter lands there is a distinct change in humidity, as the wet grasses began to heat up in the mid-day sun.
Mr. Wages has been working in this area since 2008, and he was proud to show us the impressive restoration that occurred. We saw California Sycamores that had been planted, willows that had grown to impressive heights, and young oaks at a distance beginning a slower rise to adulthood. We discussed the presence of beaver on the property, and I found Mr. Wages management of the beaver as a tool to reroute the water flow ingenious; he plans to curtail access to trees near the current dams, forcing the beaver to forage further. By doing so, hopefully the beaver would reroute some of the flow into previous channels, expanding the wetland without need of permits and approval from powers that be. He also discussed the serendipitous accidents that occur while conducting this kind of work. Apparently, a major portion of the wetlands we visited was unintentionally restored when a fencepost busted a previously unknown water pipe. At another instance, many recently planted trees were relocated downstream by floodwater, where more than a few of them found purchase.
The interconnectedness of nature is cliché to discuss in abstract, but walking the land it becomes evident that restoration requires the both informed action and a willingness to let any particular landscape dictate what will happen there. Mr. Wages discussed this reality while talking about the many plants he has attempted to introduce that did not work – the failed deer grass plantings or the struggling trees in other locales, and we saw random unplanned examples of natives returning, small patches of purple needle grass, vinegar weed and the ubiquitous pods of the California poppy covering the floor. It is hopeful to know that the land still wants to be grassland or marsh – that often all we need to do is allow it to return and it will do remarkable work by itself.
We said goodbye to Mr. Wages as we made our way further into the Sierra foothills, stopping next at PLT’s Taylor Ranch Preserve in Auburn. At over 1,500 feet elevation, Taylor Ranch is a major change in environment from the morning locales. The first two preserves represented mostly open grassland, but here we entered part of what PLT describes as “The largest contiguous area of oak woodlands remaining in Placer County”.[iii] And in that, it did not disappoint. The landscape is painted in the white trunks of blue oaks and the twisted, multiple, medusa trunks of live oaks. There are a few species of pine scattered about; the common foothill pine and some large Ponderosas that, due to the cooling effect of the stream, had migrated to a slightly lower elevation than their normal range. Making our way to the creek, we interrupted a group of acorn woodpeckers enjoying the warm sun. We sat in the sun and discussed many of the birds that rely on these woodlands.
As we walked the preserve we came to a moss and lichen covered outcropping of metamorphic rock. One large flat monolith looked particularly promising, so I moved away from the group and climbed atop the rock. To my delight, I discovered it was indeed a grinding rock. On that very stone, generations of Nisenan peoples gathered the local bounty of acorns – acorns which currently fell to the ground in such volume that many were not even eaten by the local herbivores – and pulverized them into flour; the first step in a process that produced their staple grain foods for the upcoming winter season. This work, year after year, wears down the stone and creates telltale bowls in the granite.
It was fitting that we stood beside this rock, evidence that this landscape had been managed successfully by people for thousands of years, and discussed the modern problems of land management. There is a prevailing myth among environmentalists that a pristine environment is one that is devoid of human intervention. The grinding rock reminds us that there is literally no place in this country that was not home to entire nations of people who played active roles in maintaining their homeland for thousands of years. Restoring the land, therefore, is not a matter of removing human action. What is needed is the return of the land to the people that know it intimately, who are invested in the perpetual fertility of a place. Where this act of environmental justice can be accomplished it should be – and in the interim, what the land needs is not an absence of human action but the learned and caring touch of people like Mr. Wages to provide good stewardship – for the gift of good land to future generations.
[i] Berry, Wendell. “The Whole Horse.” In The Art of the Commonplace, 239. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2002.
[ii] McGill, Nicholas. “PLT’s Land Manager Demonstrates Passion for Land and Life.” April 1, 2014. Accessed November 1, 2015. https://www.placerlandtrust.org/plts-land-manager-demonstrates-passion-for-land-and-life/
[iii] “Taylor Ranch Preserve”. 2014. Accessed November 1. https://www.placerlandtrust.org/project/taylor-ranch-preserve/
By Derek Warnken, Sierra College student