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'Sticking around' for an alpine valley

 

From his kitchen window, Attilio Genasci can see past barns and alfalfa fields to a small knoll jutting up from the flat expanse of Sierra Valley. Angie, his wife of 50 years, is buried there.

For Genasci, 96, the vista is a daily reminder of his promise to Angie to protect this spacious valley, 45 miles north of California’s Lake Tahoe. "I can see her standing at this window saying, ‘This is my church, my cathedral.’ I don’t dare betray the trust she placed in me," he says.

Genasci’s commitment to Angie is inseparable from his love for the 500-acre ranch his parents bought the day he was born. Although he spent nearly four years at the University of Nevada, Reno, studying agriculture, and has traveled frequently to Switzerland to visit his parents’ villages, Genasci has always been wedded to Sierra Valley, the largest alpine valley in the Sierra Nevada and one of the biggest in the nation. Here he raises dryland alfalfa and rye, and over 200 Angus cattle.

Wiry, energetic and boundlessly optimistic, Genasci climbs onto the seat of a faded red tractor and scans the pastures that stretch past the meandering Feather River to the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. The valley is an internationally recognized habitat for migrating birds, and home to deer, antelope and 50 species of butterflies. Genasci’s neighbors include about 30 other ranchers, most of them descendants of the Swiss-Italian pioneers who homesteaded the valley in the late 1800s.

For the last decade, Genasci has watched development surge around Lake Tahoe and nearby Reno. It’s like a time bomb ticking next to Sierra Valley, he says: "If it were up to the Realtors, they would fill up this valley with subdivisions and move on to the next one."

Not if Genasci has anything to say about it. In 1998, he used his blue-eyed charm and savvy to gather a group of ranchers and county officials around his kitchen table, hoping to come up with a way to safeguard the 160,000-acre Sierra Valley watershed. The group decided to promote conservation easements, voluntary agreements between landowners and a land trust or government agency that give owners tax breaks in exchange for restricting their development rights. After four years of gentle lobbying within the community, the group celebrated the creation of the valley’s first easement.

Last year, on his 95th birthday, Genasci sold his development rights to the California Rangeland Trust. In exchange, along with a cash payment and lower property taxes, Genasci, his son, Jim, and their heirs can continue to ranch and graze cattle — "Forever!" Genasci shouts, raising his arms triumphantly.

With local land prices doubling in the last five years, he may have forfeited as much as a million dollars in the deal. Genasci grins at the thought. "What do I need with $1 million? This land is more precious than that, and once it’s gone, it’s gone."

Some of his ranching neighbors remain unconvinced. But Genasci — and several of his neighbors — believe conservation easements are Sierra Valley’s best friend. "They guarantee us clear air, beautiful views and no traffic," he says. So far, the voluntary program he launched has helped conserve 30,160 acres of local ranchland.

Recently, an unwitting real estate agent stopped by Genasci’s two-story ranch house and offered to buy the knoll framed in the view from his kitchen window. "Not for sale," Genasci responded. And he repeats that emphatic response: "Not now, not ever."

He promises to continue his conservation campaign, and not just for Angie. "I’ll never quit," he says with a wink. "I’ve got to stick around for Sierra Valley."

The author is a freelance journalist in Plumas County, California.