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County Creates ‘Conservation Blueprint’ to Help Protect Area Land

Sandhills of Scotts Valley are considered county gems that house communities of plants and animals found only in Santa Cruz County.

In mid February, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County released its “Conservation Blueprint,” the first all-encompassing assessment of its kind of the current status of the most pressing environmental and land use issues in the county.

The 196-page document covers biodiversity, water resources, agriculture and ranch lands, and parks and recreation areas. It also includes recommendations for future action to protect these areas.

In producing the report, more than 100 technical advisors weighed in. They represented a broad cross section of the community, hailing from places as diverse as universities, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and agricultural groups.

“There’d be meetings and people would look around and say, ‘We’ve never been in the same room together,” said Stephen Slade, the Land Trust’s deputy director.

Similarly, the conservation blueprint, which took two years to compile, brings together information that has never been available in the same document, Slade said.

“Until now, it was just scattered in so many different places,” said Betsy Herbert, an environmental analyst for the San Lorenzo Valley Water District. Herbert also served on the conservation blueprint’s steering committee.

The Land Trust identified about 50,000 acres of target land for conservation to protect endangered species, watersheds and other important natural resources, Slade said. But that doesn’t mean all of the land needs to be protected from all human use.

“When you say protect 50,000 acres, you think ‘buy’ 50,000 acres,” Slade said. “That is not what we’re thinking. Maybe only 10 or 15 percent of it will actually be purchased.”

Instead, the blueprint encourages finding incentives for individual landowners to conserve valuable land without having to give it up. For example, a farmer might sell an easement on her property that limits how she can use it–it may bar residential development, for example–but she still owns the land.

John Ricker, also a member of the steering committee, points to this type of innovative recommendation as a strength of the blueprint.

“It's a good balance of protection and stewardship and maintenance of functioning, working lands,” he said.

Still, he added, “There’s still an awful lot of work to be done. There’s a tremendous need for additional resources to implement the stewardship and the programs we need to really protect and manage the landscape.”

Realizing that budgets are tight, the Land Trust included a section on “multi-benefit” areas–that is, places where conservation can have an impact on several fronts.

“These are areas where you could really leverage your conservation strategy,” Herbert said.

For example, Scotts Valley holds one of the county’s gems. The sandhills habitat, scattered over 6,000 acres, is a community of plants and animals found only in Santa Cruz County. These patches of dry, sandy soil usually found on slopes support life that is found nowhere else, including several species of insects and flowers. Aside from their vital importance to biodiversity, the sandhills also funnel rainwater into an aquifer that provides drinking water to Scotts Valley.

The blueprint also mentions that the city of Scotts Valley is in the process of determining how to manage an area known as the Glenwood Preserve, which could serve both recreation and water interests.

Another priority for the Land Trust was to anticipate future challenges to conservation in Santa Cruz County. Herbert points to the specter of climate change that looms on the horizon.

Myriad effects could result from changing weather patterns. One is particularly concerning to Herbert. While rainfall gauges might register the same annual totals, rain may come in the form of more intense storms punctuated by longer dry periods.

“From a water manager’s point of view, that rain water becomes much harder to capture,” Herbert said. During big storms, a lot of the rain that falls ends up flowing into the ocean, evading absorption into the aquifers that supply the county’s drinking water, she added.

As the climate changes, water conservation and watershed protection will become more important, said Herbert, adding, “The blueprint examines these issues.”

While climate change and population growth are future challenges the blueprint’s authors can anticipate, Slade said there are sure to be other issues that will arise.

“Anyone that’s been in California very long has seen how rapidly landscapes can change,” he added.

Even the document in its current form is mutable. The Land Trust has posted the blue print on its web site, and is currently accepting input from the public until March 18.

“It’s been encouraging,” Slade said of the number of comments they’ve received so far, adding that he hopes to get more people involved.

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