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Silicon Valley couple aims to save 100k Sierra Nevada acres

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Silicon Valley couple aims to save 100k Sierra Nevada acres

Postby ERIC » Wed Oct 28, 2009 3:31 pm

Prominent Silicon Valley couple aims to save 100,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada

By Paul Rogers
progers@mercurynews.com
Posted: 10/27/2009 07:08:26 PM PDT
Updated: 10/28/2009 11:57:20 AM PDT
http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-new ... source=rss


TRUCKEE — In the 1860s, Congress created a huge checkerboard of land ownership across California's Sierra Nevada mountain range when it granted every other square mile to railroad barons along the route of the transcontinental railroad.

Now, nearly 150 years later, one of Silicon Valley's high-profile couples is working to buy back the squares for nature.

Image
Jim and Becky Morgan, with their dog, Lindsey, pose for a portrait at the... ( Jim Gensheimer )

Jim and Becky Morgan of Los Altos Hills — he, the retired CEO of Applied Materials and she, a former Santa Clara County supervisor and Republican state senator — have launched an ambitious project to raise $100 million in the next five years to preserve land across the Sierra.

They are determined to protect up to 100,000 acres between south of Lake Tahoe and Lassen Volcanic National Park, all within a 125-mile swath of majestic forests and snow-capped peaks.

Unlike other donors who have spent millions to buy California's pricey beach-front property for parks, or saved old-growth redwoods mired in political battles, the Morgans see the Northern Sierra as they would a heady startup venture. If you commit early, before all the hype, prices are still cheap.

"We're trying to get ahead of the building wave," said Becky Morgan, riding in a four-wheel drive truck recently along a bumpy dirt road north of Truckee.

The couple founded the nonprofit Northern Sierra Partnership in 2007, and committed $10 million from their family foundation. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation followed with another $10 million donation. And various other donors have put in $10 million more.

The idea is to work with willing land sellers and public funds, and buy about half of the 100,000 acres to transfer to the U.S. Forest Service, state parks and the California Department of Fish & Game. The rest would be kept in private ownership, but preserved through easements and other agreements, under which a timber company would continue some logging, for example, but give up development rights.

Race to preserve

The Morgans' love for the mountains began in college. They met in 1956 at Cornell University. He was a farm kid, an Eagle Scout from Indiana studying engineering. She was a dairy farmer's daughter from Woodstock, Vt., studying ecology. She taught him to ski.

After they were married and moved to California, they took their first ski trip to Lake Tahoe in 1969 with their children, Jeff, then 7, and Mary, 5. The whole Morgan clan fell in love with the landscape.

In the years since, Becky rose from a 1970s position on the Palo Alto school board to become a state senator representing Silicon Valley. Jim transformed Applied Materials from a small struggling firm to a multibillion-dollar chip equipment maker.

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Over the years, they've seen the Sierras change.

"It clearly has been developed, and it kind of accelerated in the last decade," Jim Morgan said.

But with a slow economy providing a few years of breathing room, the Morgans feel that now is the most opportune time to make their move. They want to get ahead of population pressures which will inevitably cause another push to carve up the forests.

"All the time, people are coming from the Bay Area, Tahoe, Reno all over. They want to build their dream home here," said Peter Huebner, a supervisor in Sierra County, which lies north of Lake Tahoe.

Huebner supports the Morgans' effort, as long as the Forest Service or private owners are able to thin the conifers that can burn explosively when grown too dense.

"For the next generation, I'd like to see a lot of things preserved," he said. "But some logging should be done. The forest needs to be managed right."

The Morgans are targeting land high in value for wildlife, such as trout, black bears and birds such as the endangered willow flycatcher. Also high on the list are properties with streams that feed key water bodies such as the Feather, Yuba or American rivers, which all eventually drain into San Francisco Bay's delta, providing California's primary drinking water source.

"It's not that you don't want development," said Jim Morgan, who also serves on the board of the California Nature Conservancy. "You just don't need to put it along the most important streams in the watershed."

The Northern Sierra Partnership is made up of five organizations: The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, the Truckee Donner Land Trust, the Sierra Business Council and the Feather River Land Trust.

New opportunities are cropping up across the Sierra because of the collapse of the housing market and lumber prices, which is making timber companies more eager to sell forest land, said Dave Sutton, Northern California director of the Trust for Public Land, in San Francisco.

"It's unprecedented. You might have had two or three of your top 10 properties in play before. But now there are seven or eight," Sutton said. "We don't think we'll ever see an opportunity like this again."

Railroad history

The partnership's first large purchase — for an estimated $3 million to $4 million — is scheduled to close in December. Known as the Cold Stream property, the 1,174-acre landscape of red firs, lodgepole pines and alpine meadows sits adjacent to the Tahoe National Forest near Sierraville in an area where developers are surveying for vacation homes.

The property's signature feature, Cold Stream, flows from the slopes of Mount Lola in Nevada County. At 9,148-feet, the peak is named for Lola Montez, a flamboyant 19th century dancer and mistress to the King of Bavaria who lived in Grass Valley in the early 1850s and is believed to be the inspiration for the phrase "whatever Lola wants, Lola gets."

Its shape comes from railroad history.

As an incentive to encourage construction of the transcontinental railroad, Congress agreed in 1863 to give every other square mile of land in a 20-mile wide band from Sacramento up over Donner Summit to the Central Pacific Railroad, which was owned by the "Big Four" of Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Charles Crocker.

"It was the only bad decision that Abraham Lincoln ever made," joked Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

The railroad cut timber to build bridges and railroad ties. Later, it sold many of the squares for development. But roughly 500,000 acres of privately owned squares still exist between Tahoe and Lassen, a mishmash of private land and national forests that complicates firefighting and protecting wildlife corridors.

Sierra Pacific Industries, a timber company in Redding, owns nearly half of the squares. It prefers to sell some to have more evenly shaped logging parcels, said spokesman Mark Pawlicki.

The Morgans, who have both recently turned 70, say they hope other Silicon Valley leaders will become involved to help save the area that naturalist John Muir called "the Range of Light."

"We're very passionate about nature and being outside,'' said Becky Morgan, "and we really want to preserve the resources here for everybody's children."
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Re: Silicon Valley couple aims to save 100k Sierra Nevada acres

Postby The Other Tom » Wed Oct 28, 2009 4:44 pm

Good for them. It's nice to know there are still good people in the world.
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Re: Silicon Valley couple aims to save 100k Sierra Nevada acres

Postby SteveB » Sun Nov 01, 2009 8:46 pm

I wish them the best of luck in their ambitious goal. I would love nothing more than to see the checkboard on the National Forest map in the area go all green. I just wish there were many others with the resources donating to such a grand goal (as opposed to buying the latest and greatest cars, planes, and beachfront California property).
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Re: Silicon Valley couple aims to save 100k Sierra Nevada acres

Postby rscofield » Fri Nov 06, 2009 8:20 pm

One would hope they don’t donate to USFS and thus make it available for multiple use!
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Re: Silicon Valley couple aims to save 100k Sierra Nevada acres

Postby dave54 » Fri Nov 13, 2009 10:10 pm

The FS has always been trying to clean up the checkerboard. The problem is too many private landowners have tried in the past to have their own version of a 'cash-for-clunkers' program. The FS wisely declined a number of offers in the past, when the offered parcel was already logged out, mined out, had soil erosion problems, or contained hazmat dumps.

One complex exchange I was involved in the periphery, was a 4 way exchange over a decade in negotiation. The FS was getting some wilderness inholdings, proposed wilderness inholdings, candidate W&S river inholdings, endangered species habitat, and other high sensitivity lands, in exchange for scattered FS parcels that happened to have some marginal old-growth forest. At the 11th hour an outside environmental group (I'll leave nameless), that had no comments or concerns during the 10 years previous, jumped in at the last minute to protest the scattered parcels the FS was proposing to trade away. The entire deal fell apart. The proposed wilderness is still only proposed, since the FS will not make a final recommendation to Congress until the land ownership inside the proposed wilderness is cleaned up.

Another parcel, adjacent to LVNP and inside proposed wilderness, (Spencer Meadows, beautiful alpine meadow surrounded by 8,000' peaks), has been offered for sale to the FS, and the FS wants it (another case of not recommending final wilderness status until the ownership is cleaned up). Money was allocated for purchase. Unfortunately, The Nature Conservancy holds a conservation easement on it, and the FS does not want any encumbrances on the parcels it obtains. On principal, TNC will not lift any easements it holds. So the whole deal is a stalemate and the wilderness proposal is on indefinite hold. ](*,)
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