by CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON
In September, a proposal was sent to Placer County officials that would protect Martis Valley, a massive portion of the North Lake Tahoe-Donner Pass region, from development.
The proposal aims to move planned development of residential subdivisions from the eastern part of Martis Valley to the western part, close to the Northstar California ski resort on the west side of Highway 267. The remaining east side land – over six thousand acres – would become part of the would be 50 thousand acres of continuous conservation wilderness north of Lake Tahoe, Calif. The land is presently owned by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), the second largest logging company in the U.S. and owner of nearly two million acres of timberland on the West Coast.
What makes the Martis Valley Opportunity proposal unique is more than just the hopes to preserve a massive area of land, but rather that it is the product of an unlikely strategy. Two conservation groups worked alongside developers and logging company to create a proposal to secure the last piece of preservable Martis Valley land.
Alexis Ollar is the executive director of the Mountain Area Preservation Foundation (MAP), a conservationist group that has worked for years on the Martis Valley proposal. She said that this agreement may mean more than just protecting wilderness.
“There’s been a shift,” Ollar said. “Not fighting a proposal, but coming up with something that meets goals for both sides.”
Ollar said the agreement is significant because it is a departure from the previous tactics used by conservationists to halt development. Ollar calls these tactics the “no, no, no campaigns”, in which litigation was filed to stop development, and conservationists had little interest in compromising with developers.
“It hasn’t been a war,” Ollar said. “We’ve been at the same table.”
Tom Mooers is the executive director of Sierra Watch, a conservation organization that formed over a decade ago in response to development threats to Martis Valley. Mooers said he was happy to work together with developers this time around, but acknowledged that compromise is not always possible.
“Ten years ago, we would have looked more like a ‘no, no, no campaign,’” Mooers said. “If we can agree, then we should, but when we need to say, ‘No, we [will].’”
Mooers said that this time it was clear that cooperation was an option; he doesn’t believe that cooperation with developers is the appropriate response to all long-term conservation efforts in Sierra Mountains.
Ollar believes that cooperation produces more long-term results than previous conservation tactics. She said the old strategy of opposing litigation against development fails in the long-term.
“You can delay all you want,” Ollar said. “Environmentalists don’t trust developers. The traditional way is complete opposition, but what are they getting done?”
Mark Pawlicki, director of corporate affairs and sustainability at SPI, agreed that the collaboration was a success. He called the agreement “particularly significant,” not just because of the agreement, but because of its size. SPI has been a part of conservation efforts before, particularly in Colorado, Washington and California. Pawlicki said that the company will “look into deals in the future.”
Ollar said that the reason this collaboration was possible – and why SPI is willing to sell the land at all – is due to the fact that the agreement is incentive based. Pawlicki agreed that the company recognizes that changing dynamics in the Truckee region have contributed to the land’s increasing conservation value. Pawlicki said this has influenced SPI’s decision to agree to sell the land.
Mooers also suspects that the increased recreational value of the land has influenced their decision to sell. “They make rational economic decisions,” said Mooers. “Martis peak has such high recreational value – more than they could make in lumber.”
Even though the land is presently owned by SPI and is considered private property, it hasn’t stopped the community from hiking, biking, and sightseeing in the area.
“There’s already miles and miles of trails,” Ollar said. “SPI knows how much use their land gets.”
The community’s desire to use Martis Valley is largely why there is so much effort for its conservation. Although, this isn’t without its own problems.
“Everything we love about it is what makes it so valuable to developers,” said Mooers.
Despite the success of the cooperative effort, the proposal is still a long way from fruition. The process, Ollar said, will take years – possibly stretching beyond a decade.
“The proposal has been sent to Placer County for its review and approval,” Ollar said, adding that it’s not guaranteed to get approval in this form. “Placer County has a history of moving development ahead. The only thing that would stall it is them not understanding the benefits of conservation.”
“If this goes the way we planned, there won’t be a need to fight it,” Ollar said. “If it doesn’t, that will create pressure for litigation.”
Even then, the process of litigation is time-consuming and difficult.
“Litigation would be the last tool we pull out of our toolbox,” said Ollar. She expects that if the proposal is approved by the county, there will likely be upwards of five separate agreements made.
“This is what takes two-plus years,” she said. Only after this is done can the process of public review – including environmental impact reports – actually begin.
“This isn’t over,” Ollar said, “It has just started.”
Although SPI has only owned the land since 1993, this area of Martis Valley has been logged since the 1930s. The real threat, said Mooers, is from the development.
“What’s best for forest health is not putting subdivisions into the forest,” Mooers said. “Arguably the worst thing for a forest is to cut it down and pave it.”
Mooers said what is important to realize is that the agreement is a potentially permanent solution.
“It’s about 10, 40, 110 years from now,” Mooers said. “No one can develop this land. Our ultimate goal is permanent protection.”
Ollar believes the process behind the Martis Valley proposal creates a good model for future efforts, not just because of the collaboration, but because of its method for acquiring the land it hopes to protect.
After appraisal, money to purchase the land would come from The Martis Fund, which was formed to manage money accrued from transfer fees, Ollar said. Transfer fees – which Ollar said are essentially “conservation fees” – are taken off land purchases in the area and are continually collected. The Martis Fund has already collected more than $5 million from these fees.