Making a monument from scratch

A writer wonders if this piece of Northern California federal land is worth the new designation.


I’ve always had a weakness for the underappreciated, overlooked corners of the public domain. Now, one of my favorite Cinderella places is on the cusp of becoming a national monument. I’ve been pondering: Does it deserve this?

Four decades ago, I became aware of some scraps of land on the dry inland edge of the Coast Ranges, just a couple of hours north of my home near San Francisco. Administered by the Ukiah office of the Bureau of Land Management, they had no special name. Their uniting feature was something called Blue Ridge, a ghostly hogback some 3,000 feet high and 70 miles long, overlooking California’s rich Central Valley and the state capital of Sacramento. Two big creeks, Putah and Cache, cut east through this rampart to join the Sacramento River. Their upper watersheds, hidden behind that ridge, were pretty primitive, an enticing blankness on California’s busy map.

My first attempt to penetrate the blankness, around 1978, earned me some scratches. Starting near the notch cut by Cache Creek, I bushwhacked to the top of Blue Ridge, a trek feasible only because a brushfire had just thinned out the usually dense and thorny chaparral. The scorched plateau I finally reached challenged traditional notions of “scenery,” but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place that felt more wild. Local undulations hid the farmlands to the east, but not the great rank of Sierra-Cascade peaks beyond. In the other direction, Cache Creek vanished upstream among roadless hills.

I was standing on a little island of BLM land, from which I could see more such islands north, south and west. Several blocks were inaccessible behind ranch gates, public property the public could not reach. I thought how nice it would be to hike those places, but the idea that these leftover bits of ground could ever be part of something called a national monument never crossed my mind.

The view from atop Blue Ridge.
Ivan Sohrakoff

The monument plan is the latest step in a quarter-century quest for identity that began in the university town of Davis, in the shadow of Blue Ridge. Inspired by visiting poet Gary Snyder and the contemporary push for “bioregional” identity, academics proclaimed a kind of new homeland: the Putah-Cache Bioregion. The bioregion became the subject of courses and a tour guide, and the press it received enticed many more people to explore it.

The bioregion’s key contribution, however, may have been to focus scientific research. Gathering new information and reassessing old, the Davis scientists became boosters of their backyard. To geologist Eldridge Moores, for example, this is perhaps the world’s best exhibit for the type of tectonic junction called subduction. Less than 10 million years ago, along this line, an oceanic plate was diving under the North American continent, a process recorded in today’s rocks. “You can walk from stuff that was on the upper plate onto the lower plate,” says Moores.

One signature of subduction is an abundance of serpentine, material ripped from the mantle of the earth and here exposed to the sky. Soils derived from this rock, low in potassium and calcium and full of iron and magnesium, are tough on plants. But evolution has filled this niche with hardy specialists like the dwarf McNab and Sargents cypress; the largest genetically pure forest of Sargents cypress occupies a mountaintop west of Lake Berryessa, the misnamed “Cedar” Roughs. Serpentine is a haven for rare plants and for native ones holding out against the tide of exotics. “This region is smack-dab in the middle of a global biodiversity hot spot,” says botanist Catherine Koehler. Wouldn’t that apply to most of California? No, says Koehler firmly. “This is distinct. It is a hot spot within the hot spot.”

Maybe these hills were not so ordinary after all.

Up in the headwaters, a mining company man was coming to the same conclusion. About the time of my first hike, the gold-mining giant Homestake had moved into the area, buying up some 15,000 acres of ranchland speckled with leaky old mercury claims. Burned by public relations disasters elsewhere, Homestake hired biologist Ray Krauss and gave him rare authority as its environmental manager. Krauss, like the Davis professors, was smitten by the living treasures in his patch of auriferous hills. Knowing that the gold would play out in a few years, Krauss wanted these enduring assets in good hands: In 1993, Homestake donated 7,000 acres to the University of California-Davis as a natural reserve.

Saving this “postage stamp” was well and good, but Krauss sought greater recognition for the entire region. Working with the bioregionalists and a local rancher, George Gamble, he launched what vintners would call an appellation: the Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area. “We were able to give a kind of branding to an area that most people had never heard of,” he says.

In 1997, Krauss invited the Bureau of Land Management, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, various land trusts, the university crowd and key private landowners to sit down together in a Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area Partnership. Though it lacked formal decision-making powers, the partnership had awesome connections, and these inspired a wave of land acquisitions. “We did 60,000 acres before we were through,” says Krauss. To the north, a large BLM purchase opened access to the wild Cache Creek canyon. To the south, the hidden valley of Eticura Creek, a Putah tributary where the Homestake pits had been, passed into the hands of several public agencies.

By the early 2000s, public and semi-public holdings had coalesced into an all but continuous band, further buffered by several big ranchland conservation easements. What next? The Partnership envisioned a novel joint-management scheme, and conservative landowners, normally leery of all things governmental, were at least willing to discuss it. But another, more traditional path would be taken.

Robert Thayer, one of the bioregion authors and a Partnership participant, had his own favorite title for the region, based on a Native American village name whose resonance enchanted him –– Tuleyome: The deep home place.

In 2002, veteran conservationists Bob Schneider and Andrew Fulks bestowed this Lake Miwok name on a new regional advocacy organization. Though Tuleyome-the-group endorsed the partnership’s theme of public-private cooperation, it zeroed in on the landscape’s most manageable aspect, the federal properties. Its first campaign secured wilderness designation for Cache Creek and the Cedar Roughs in 2006, protecting some 34,000 acres.

By 2008, Tuleyome had moved on to a larger vision and another brand. It asked Congress to create a 350,000-acre Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Conservation Area. Besides BLM land, this would include the shores of Lake Berryessa, a big federal reservoir on Putah Creek controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation; and, jumping a fence to the north, it would take in a portion of neighboring Mendocino National Forest.

The expansion reflected the doctrine of conservation biology and the threat of climate change. “Bioregions,” these days, are somewhat out of fashion; “corridors” — bands of protected habitat linking south to north and low ground to high  — are in. With its southern tip brushing the metropolitan San Francisco Bay Area and its northern blending into the Pacific Northwest forests, the inner California Coast Range is just such a corridor, what Davis ecologist Chad Roberts calls “a hundred-mile-long geographic ramp” for species forced to relocate in a warming world. The national conservation area would embrace the government lands along this ramp, from 300 feet near Lake Berryessa to 7,056 feet on the top of Snow Mountain, the first big hump in Mendocino National Forest.

No land would be shifted between agencies. Though overseen by a joint advisory council, each would keep on managing its own acres. Established activities — logging, grazing, and off-highway vehicle use among others —would continue. Just what, then, would designation bring? Essentially, money. The combined area would have a better crack at the dwindling national funds for land acquisition and ecological restoration. The title would also push the agencies to work together on issues like control of exotic starthistle and rampant marijuana plantations. And it would lure more tourists. The relabeled area would show up on ordinary highway maps, a block of welcoming green proclaiming: “Something special here.”

To achieve support, advocates trimmed the plan as they went along. When some local governments said no, they dropped lands in those counties; to accommodate proposed wind turbines, they pulled the boundary back from the breezy crest of a key ridge; and they laid on reassuring language thickly — no application to private lands, acquisition from willing sellers only, endorsement of historic uses. Finally, the Lake Berryessa shoreline was omitted.

Still, not everyone was mollified. The California Cattlemen’s Association, for instance, feared that any special designation would “open us up to a lot more pressure” toward reduction of grazing. And when California’s Rep. Mike Thompson and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced bills in 2012, they encountered something not negotiable — the generic Republican suspicion of anything that smacked of government expansion or increased control. The bills never even reached the floor.

Which brings us to the present day and to the latest entry in this identity parade: Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument, which President Obama may, at any moment, declare.

National monuments used to have a pretty exalted status. Parks in all but name, they differed largely in being created not by act of Congress but by presidential decree, under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Tending to size and jaw-dropping spectacle, they were subject to restrictive management. Even those who love it most had trouble seeing this stretch of California as that kind of monument.

But in 1996, when Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, he changed  the model, allowing the land to be managed under vaguer rules and left in the hands of the BLM. Since then, the classification has shed much of its rigor. Some new monuments are park-like, but others are multiple-use areas — as this one would be. The switch from “national conservation area” to “national monument” is no longer all that much of a leap.

This spring, I got to know the debatable region afresh, taking recently-built trails to places once off-limits. I walked among budding blue oaks and flourishing native grasses and wildflowers far beyond my limited capacity to name. And I revisited my old campsite on Blue Ridge, greener now and blossoming, if still on the prickly side.

This place will never be a Grand Canyon or a Grand Teton — to name two parks that got their start as national monuments. Its values are subtler and come largely from location. In a bustling neighborhood of cities and intensive agriculture, this is a precious void, a reservoir of habitats, a breathing space for millions of people. Whatever we call it, this country needs and merits our loving attention — more building of trails, more purchase of key parcels, more healing of old scars, more pulling of bad weeds. Money needs to fall on it like rain.

The Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument?

Bring it on.

John Hart writes on public lands, resource policy and farmland protection. Titles include San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary and Storm Over Mono: The Mono Lake Battle and the California Water Future, plus several guides to wilderness travel. He is based in San Rafael, California.

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