Recent land acquisitions indicate the Land Trust means business
Right off of Highway 129, hidden in the Pajaro Hills, lies Star Creek Ranch. Half of its 1,200 acres are in Santa Cruz County, while the other half rest in Santa Clara County. All of it, however, was acquired by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County (LTSCC), in the first of many new land acquisitions by the group.
Land Trust Deputy Director Stephen Slade says there were a variety of reasons why the organization decided to acquire Star Creek.
“We saw its importance for the movement of wildlife between mountain ranges, the importance of the creek for steelhead, and its importance as a permanent barrier against development,” says Slade.
Crooked oak trees, towering redwoods, and the Pescadero Creek that surrounds half of the ranch, and eventually drains into the Pajaro River, characterize Star Creek, which is also encircled by four other ranches: Kelly Thompson, Castro Valley, Sargent, and Rocha.
Looking into the valley of the ranch and across into the distance, where the Diablo Range stands, it’s easy to picture deer bounding through the trees, fish swimming through the water, and bobcats and mountain lions silently surveying the land. It’s these animals—and the endangered California red-legged frog, in particular—that the group hopes to protect.
Star Creek will be the first of many acquisitions within the Pajaro Hills, whose 14,500 acres, according the Land Trust’s 25-Year Conservation Blueprint, are also essential to connecting wildlife to the Gabilan and Diablo ranges, which are found south and west, respectively. The Conservation Blueprint also considers the upper San Lorenzo, upper Corralitos, Larkin Valley, Interlaken, North Coast watersheds, river and riparian systems, and sand hills as having important areas within them for multi-benefit conservation.
“[The Conservation Blueprint] is not a plan that’s going to simply sit on the shelf,” says Slade. ”This is the first project that starts turning that vision into reality.”
Slade’s words rang true on Dec. 8, when the largest private landholding in Santa Cruz County was acquired for $30 million. It was an effort of the Living Landscape Initiative, a collaboration between the LTSCC, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), Save the Redwoods League and the Sempervirens Fund.
The 8,532-acre CEMEX Redwood property, as it is known, is near the site of the former CEMEX cement plant in Davenport and stretches from Highway 1 to a ridgeline along Empire Grade Road. The conservation of the property will bring together 26,000 acres of protected lands, and will prevent development on the land.
County Supervisor Ellen Pirie calls the LTSCC’s work “important,” and states that the Board of Supervisors “hasn’t had any controversy about Land Trust issues.”
“One thing that is really important to the people of Santa Cruz is that we not become San Jose-by-the-Sea,” says Pirie. “The Land Trust is uniquely positioned to be able to help us preserve the quality of life that we have here.”
Pirie emphasizes the importance of both agriculture and tourism to the Santa Cruz County economy, and that development on local land is not necessarily the right move for the area.
“In many communities land is under tremendous pressure to be developed,” she says. “You could make an argument that we should build housing or shopping centers, and that’s clearly what has been done in other parts of the state. I don’t think that’s what we should do here though. To take that land out of service, and to put some houses down on it, seems like a waste to me and not a wise decision in the long run.”
Back at Star Creek Ranch, as the sun sets and the sky changes colors, Slade explains his hopes that the Land Trust can figure out a way to make areas like Star Creek Ranch and the CEMEX Redwood property more accessible to the public.
“In general people will protect what’s accessible,” he says. ”And I think that this area, the Pajaro Hills that we’re standing in, will be a failure if it’s never accessible to people; if [it stays] the way it is now—something that everyone has seen in the distance but never been to. It’s a different experience standing here and seeing how close everything is, and being told.”