A mountain lake that looks as if it was sprung from the pages of a wilderness calendar, along with rugged forests north of Lake Tahoe that are home to black bears, mountain lions, badgers and other wildlife, will be preserved under a $14 million deal announced Monday.
The Northern Sierra Partnership, a coalition of land trusts based in Palo Alto and funded in large part with donations from Silicon Valley technology leaders, purchased the 2,914 acres located about two miles north of Truckee. The purchase is part of a multi-year effort to protect 100,000 acres or more between Lake Tahoe and Mount Lassen for wildlife, public recreation and water conservation.
“This is a very beautiful forested area that is really rich in wildlife,” said Lucy Blake, president of the Northern Sierra Partnership. “But it has been fragmented for years into different ownerships — timber companies, private owners, and others. We’ve been trying to conserve it as a connected natural landscape.”
The coalition was founded in 2007, largely by Jim Morgan, the retired CEO and chairman of Applied Materials, a Santa Clara-based company that builds the equipment to make semiconductor chips, and his wife, Becky Morgan, a former Republican state senator. The partnership includes the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Business Council, the Feather River Land Trust, Truckee Donner Land Trust and Trust for Public Land.
So far, the partnership has preserved roughly 93,787 acres and raised $78 million in private donations.
Its main tactic is to purchase land or development rights from willing sellers. Much of the property is adjacent to national forests in the Sierra Nevada. It exists in checkerboard patterns of private and public ownership that originated when President Abraham Lincoln’s administration in the 1860s gave every other square mile of land within 20 miles on either side of Donner Summit to railroads to encourage development of the Transcontinental Railroad.
That checkerboard pattern across the heart of the Sierra — 640 acres owned by the Forest Service, adjacent to 640 acres owned by timber companies or other private owners — has fragmented wild areas, increasing the risk of development and wildfires, and blocking corridors for wildlife to roam.
“People tend to take for granted these open spaces,” said Greyson Howard, a spokesman for the Truckee Donner Land Trust. “You drive along I-80 over Donner Summit and look out your window, and most people just assume that it’s all public protected land that’s going to be there forever and they don’t have to worry about it. But that’s very much not the case.”
In recent years, the coalition has preserved areas from Independence Lake north of Truckee to meadows in Martis Valley on Lake Tahoe’s northern edges, to the rocky crags of Castle Peak, Sierra Valley and the Royal Gorge area west of Lake Tahoe.
The purchases have been particularly noteworthy because California’s state parks department has all but stopped acquiring new land in the past decade, and federal funding has been uneven.
In Monday’s deal, the coalition bought five parcels of land in the hills around Carpenter Valley, just north of the Tahoe Donner ski resort.
Perhaps the most scenic is Frog Lake, a 680-acre property that sits at about 6,700 feet, flanked by granite cliffs. The property — connected by a rugged two-mile trail to the Pacific Crest Trail just to the west — was purchased in the 1930s by Felix Smith, a prominent San Francisco attorney who bought it from Southern Pacific Railroad. His family used the land as a summer retreat, and built a stone hut near its shoreline.
The Truckee Donner Land Trust plans to renovate the building, and build three other wooden huts there this summer, which it will reserve to members of the public for hiking and back country skiing starting next year. Over the next five years, it hopes to build a trail roughly 15 miles long, connecting the property to Independence Lake.
The partnership also bought other four parcels, totaling 2,234 acres, from Sierra Pacific Industries, a timber company based in Shasta County. Those lands, which include forests of Ponderosa pine, incense cedar, red fir, aspen groves and other trees, had been modestly logged, but not for decades. They sit at the northern headwaters of the Truckee River.
“This is in some ways creating an urban limit line for Truckee on the north side,” Blake said. “We really felt that this land was very much at risk of development if we didn’t purchase it.”
Biologists have set up automatic wildlife cameras in the area. They have photographed black bears, deer, wolverines, mountain lions, martens and other animals. They have records of a gray wolf also spending time in the area in recent years.
Slightly more than one-third of all the land in the deal — 1,110 acres — is being sold to the U.S. Forest Service for $3.2 million, less than the environmental groups paid to buy it, and opened to the public. The Truckee Donner Land Trust will open its land to the public also.
“During the current pandemic we have seen how important open spaces are for everyone’s mental and physical well-being,” said Markley Bavinger, Sierra Program manager for The Trust for Public Land. “This work helps to heal people while also repairing a legacy of checker-boarded ownership in the region.”
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