Local group leads Donner Summit fight
Sierra Watch beats large development
From a modest office perched above upper Commercial Street in downtown Nevada City, a small, devoted staff is fighting to win some of the most significant conservation deals in the Sierra Nevada.
This summer, Sierra Watch announced two notable deals – the plan by a collaboration of land trusts to purchase the 3,000-acre Royal Gorge property on Donner Summit and the effective defense of the Bear River from a Southern California water grab.
Nevada City is considered a hot bed of conservation groups with such notables as American Rivers, Sierra Fund, South Yuba River Citizens League and Sierra Streams Institute based in the Sierra Nevada foothills town.
Possessing a deep kindred value for home and the local landscape, Nevada City stands out as a community that fights loyally to preserve its turf.
“Nevada City has a great sense of place,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch.
Sierra Watch easily fills a niche in such an environment, serving as a zealous watchdog that guards against development in the foothill community’s favorite recreational playground, the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Sierra Watch opened its headquarters office in downtown Nevada City in 2001 at a time when Martis Valley, which is near Truckee, was threatened by a large development proposal with as many as 15,000 homes.
“It was really a nightmare vision for what could happen,” said Mooers.
Pointing at a map showing large swaths of land threatened by development just a few years ago, Sierra Watch has helped to secure these areas such as a “trophy piece” known as Waddle Ranch. The group remains dedicated to protecting thousands of acres more in the valley, hoping to create a “great blue print” for development in the Tahoe/ Donner area.
Recently, South Sutter Water District teamed up with a number of outside water agencies and cities to study the potential construction of a 300-foot dam on the Bear River in order to deliver water throughout the Sacramento Delta and Los Angeles County.
When the local group, Bear Yuba Land Trust, caught wind of the plan that threatened to sink acres of culturally significant and natural resource-rich land underwater, they called Sierra Watch for help.
Sierra Watch swiftly organized a formidable alliance of county supervisors, conservation groups, the Nevada Irrigation District and California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird to defend the local water supply.
With such a strong show of defense and no Sierra support for the project, the outside water agencies backed off.
The Trust for Public Land, the Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Northern Sierra Partnership face a Dec. 20 deadline to raise $13.5 million needed to seal the Royal Gorge deal and secure the area’s preservation from future development.
“It’s not pocket change, but it’s arguably the deal of the century,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch.
For five years Sierra Watch has worked on the frontlines, raising significant cash to hire the best lawyers, planners and biologists who could prove that Donner Summit doesn’t have the water, sewer or road infrastructure needed to support a major development project.
In 2007, Bay Area developers Todd Foster and Kirk Syme revealed a draft development proposal for a 950-unit resort with a new ski facility, two new lakes and dams on creeks in an area considered by many to be the most important two square miles in the West.
“We saw this as a great threat to everything we love in the Sierra Nevada,” said Mooers.
It was a project that brought emotional retaliation from homeowners who lived and vacationed in the existing Serene Lakes mountain neighborhood and a number of Western Nevada County residents who revere the area for its recreation bounty and iconic beauty.
“We provided a lot of glue and leadership to people who were appalled… We never let up,” said campaign director Peter Van Zant, who is a former Nevada County supervisor and South Yuba River Citizens League board president.
When it became known that developers were considering releasing effluent into the headwaters of the South Yuba River, opposition grew fierce. “Save Donner Summit” bumper stickers became commonplace on vehicles throughout Nevada County along with “Foster and Syme Go Home” signs on the summit.
An obvious lack of infrastructure and support from the community, a relentless campaign by Sierra Watch and an economy that never recovered led to the speculators eventual loan default.
By the terms of the agreement, the Truckee Donner Land Trust will become the new owner of Royal Gorge and will oversee a long-term stewardship plan to expand all-season recreation opportunities.
Once the deal is sealed, “No Trespassing” signs will come down and the Trust will work with community groups to improve the network of local trails on the property, possibly connecting with the existing Emigrant Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Loch Leven Trail.
At the crest of the Sierra, the region contains Cold Creek Canyon drainage and the beloved Point Mariah overlooking the upper reaches of the dramatic American River canyon.
Neighboring Sugar Bowl will manage Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Area, the largest cross-country ski resort in North America.
Getting on the phone, talking one on one with important philanthropic funders and networking with the right people are keys to the group’s success.
“There are resources everywhere. We’re not shy about asking… We’ve always said, ‘the places we’re working for are worth it,’ ” Mooers said.
With less than four months to go before the Royal Gorge deal deadline, conservation groups are about half way there. Sierra Watch remains committed to a leadership role during this critical time, Mooers said.
“We’re not going to get complacent. We’re going to get it done,” Mooers said.
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at 401-4877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 3,000-acre Royal Gorge area is considered one of the most pristine spots near Donner Summit.
How to help
To learn more about Sierra Watch or to donate money to help secure the Royal Gorge conservation deal visit sierrawatch.org.