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Friday, May 1, 2015

What the Heck is a Conservation Value Anyway? By Dr. Mike White Conservation Science Director

con·ser·va·tion \känsər-ˈvā-shən\ noun:  a careful preservation and protection of something; especially: planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.
con·ser·van·cy \kən-ˈsər-vən-sē\ noun:  An organization (or area) designated to conserve and protect natural resources.

As a professional conservationist, I often see the world in terms of conservation values.  What do I mean by conservation values?  These are the specific features, characteristics, functions, species, and spirit of a place that humans value and desire enough to protect, and therefore prioritize as an economic value.  For example, a scenic vista could be a conservation value that someone might want to protect from a visual obstruction such as a transmission tower.  Solitude is a value of the wilderness experience that inspires peace in the soul.  There are myriad conservation values that contribute to our own individual “sense of place,” and that humans see, experience, and prioritize differently. So, effective conservation programs must be explicit about the conservation values targeted for protection.

The Tejon Ranch Conservation and Land Use Agreement (affectionately known around here as the Ranch-wide Agreement or RWA), conserves 240,000 acres of the Tejon Ranch.  Conservation at Tejon Ranch is via conservation easements, which legally restrict some of the landowner’s land use rights that are considered incompatible with preserving and protecting conservation values, while allowing other compatible land uses to continue.  Under the RWA, conservation easements at Tejon Ranch are structured to protect seven specific conservation values.

1.      The property supports open space lands important to maintaining various natural communities.  Natural communities are distinct groupings of plants and animals—for example, oak woodland communities, grassland communities, or Joshua tree woodland communities.  Because of its geographic position at the junction of four major bioregions in California (Sierra Nevada, Great Central Valley, Mojave Desert, and South Coast), Tejon Ranch supports one of the largest diversities of natural communities in California, including many novel communities that are rare in other parts of the state.
A unique association of natural communities in Sacatara Canyon:  a Mojave Desert Joshua tree, California juniper, piñon pine, rabbit brush, and buckwheat community next to valley oak and foothill pine from the Great Central Valley and Sierran foothills.

2.      The natural communities and habitats are largely devoid of significant human alterations, and thus support intact ecosystem processes on which the communities and species depend.  Natural communities depend on ecosystem processes such as natural wild fires, floods, nutrient cycling in soils, gene flow between plant and animal populations, predator-prey relationships, pollination and dispersal of seeds, etc.  Tejon Ranch is large enough and wild enough to still support many of these processes, and our mission is to ensure that they continue with minimal alteration from human land uses. 
High flows in Tejon Creek during the winter of 2011.  Flooding is an important ecosystem process in stream and riparian communities.
3.      Tejon Ranch supports all or part of numerous intact watersheds, which support natural watershed functions and high quality aquatic, wetland, and riparian habitats.  A watershed includes all of the land that drains to a specific creek, and Tejon Ranch supports a number of individual watersheds.  For example, the watersheds of Tejon Creek, El Paso Creek, Tunis Creek, and Pastoria Creek comprise about 115,800 acres that all drain to the Great Central Valley.  These watersheds, especially their upper reaches, have not been substantially altered by roads, been cleared of natural vegetation, or modified by stream diversions or dams.  Intact watersheds therefore support more natural ecological functions—such as the rate at which rain infiltrates into the ground or runs off into the stream, or the amount of soil that is eroded from hillsides and carried downstream—than less intact watersheds.  Natural hydrological functions tend to support higher quality aquatic, wetland, and riparian habitats.  The Conservancy’s mission is to protect, and enhance where needed, the relatively intact watersheds at Tejon Ranch to maintain high quality habitats.

A view from the Blue Ridge into the El Paso Creek watershed.  The upper watershed is relatively intact—it has largely natural vegetation cover, with few roads, and no dams or stream diversions.

4.      The property provides significant regional landscape connectivity functions, and its protection will ensure that this function will be maintained and this area and its existing features will be available for its natural habitat values.  Tejon Ranch lies at an important geographic position between protected private and public lands to the east, south, and west.  Thus it serves as a lynchpin in the conserved lands network in this region of California.  Conserving connectivity allows movement and dispersal of animals and plants, both within and outside their ranges.  Think of a mule deer or black bear trying to travel from Sequoia National Forest in the Sierra Nevada to the Los Padres National Forest in the Central Coast Range (see map below), which would be almost impossible without significant conservation at Tejon Ranch to protect connectivity functions.
Public and private conserved land in the Tehachapi region.  Conserved lands at Tejon Ranch play a critical role in protecting connectivity functions in the region.

5.      The property supports diverse flora and fauna dependent on its high quality natural communities, functional watersheds, intact ecosystem processes, and landscape connectivity.  Protection of the property also helps support numerous other species dependent on its habitats, food resources and water supplies.  The amazing geology and diversity of vegetation communities result in the high biodiversity of plant and animal species.  With the help of our partners and citizen scientists, we have documented nearly 1,000 plants, over 250 birds, over 40 reptiles and amphibians, and over 40 mammal species on the Ranch, including over 60 special status species (species of conservation concern).

Some species found at Tejon Ranch (clockwise from upper left):  American badger, ringneck snake, Tehachapi slender salamander, alkali mariposa lily, Vasek’s clarkia, and Bakersfield cactus.

6.      The property contains scenic resources, and the protection of the property will provide a significant public benefit by preserving open space against development pressure and will protect scenic qualities unique to the area.  What can I say?  Tejon Ranch is a beautiful place and we want to keep it that way!!

Wildflowers among Joshua trees in the Antelope Valley.

Buttercups in the upper El Paso Creek watershed.

7.      The property contains important cultural and historic resources, and the protection of the property will provide a significant public benefit by ensuring the preservation of these resources.  Tejon Ranch supports an important cultural and historic heritage.  It was long occupied by several Native American tribes, who likely shaped its landscape with their management practices.  The Tehachapi Mountains and Tejon Ranch were visited by a number of California’s early explorers and scientists, including Fremont, Carson, Xantus, Williamson, Engelmann, Grinnell, Jepson, and Twisselman, who helped uncover its secrets.  The Conservancy is now partnering with other scientists and naturalists to help us to continue explore and interpret this heritage and share it with the public.

Numerous buildings and infrastructure remind us of the long human history in this region.

The Tejon Ranch Conservancy is legally obligated to protect these conservation values at Tejon Ranch and to enhance them where warranted and feasible.  We are also charged with and have the pleasure of sharing them with you.  So next time you pay a visit to Tejon Ranch, think about what you value most about this incredible place, and then come back and help us protect and enhance it!