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11/22/2011

Resilient Habitat in Our Backyard

Rockville Trails is a land of hidden valleys, ancient oak forest, stark bluffs and an exotic tabletop just a few miles off I-80, the major route between San Francisco and California’s capital, Sacramento.  You’ve probably never heard of it.  But for Solano County residents, it’s been a battleground since the mid-1970s when the first major development threatened. 

With climate change threatening, we are painfully aware that this is a property with the potential and the strategic location to be an important resilient habitat.

In the late 1980s, with a fresh infusion of cash from a Japanese bank, a new owner came in with the most ambitious development proposal we were to see.  It would have lopped off the top 100 feet of a hilltop theoretically protected by the County’s Scenic Roadways policy and contoured the land for a 28-hole golf course and over 600 housing units. 

A coalition of local homeowners, farmers, our Sierra Club chapter, and the local taxpayers fought off this proposal.  The developer, unabashed, then came back with a scheme to annex this land and thousands of acres of pristine farmland through a ballot initiative that purported to “preserve farmland and open space” when the real goal was to open it up for development. 

This effort also failed.  But in 2008, the developer finally succeeded in getting approval for a major subdivision.  The Green Valley Homeowners Association with the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club immediately filed a lawsuit based on California’s stringent environmental quality laws.  Then the economy tanked.  The combination of plummeting land values and a legal challenge ultimately led the developer to offer to sell the property to the local Solano Land Trust.  

Thanks to settlement of the lawsuit, we now have a very short time frame in which to permanently protect this beautiful and environmentally significant property. 

These 1,500 acres are the leading southern edge of the 800,000 Blue Ridge Berryessa Natural Area that stretches through pristine watersheds and wildlands in Solano, Napa and Lake counties.  Researchers have identified native middens and grinding stones dating back to 2000 BCE. This land is also rich in biological resources, including sensitive species and rare habitats, such as broad grass savannahs, centuries-old oaks and numerous year-round seeps and seasonal creeks. 

Six miles of the Bay Area Ridge Trail will run through this property to one day connect to 550 miles of trails around the San Francisco Bay. The Land Trust’s goal is to provide recreational opportunities for hikers, bikers, bird watchers, and equestrians throughout the region, while ensuring that contiguous habitat and corridors for wildlife like grey fox, coyote, and mountain lion are protected and enhanced. 

Rockville Trails is home to sensitive and rare species like the oval leaved viburnum and the valley elderberry longhorn beetle. The creeks that run through it feed into spawning grounds for endangered steelhead trout, where habitat restoration is already helping ensure healthy stream habitat for their survival.  These creeks drain into the state-protected Suisun Marsh. The land’s varied vegetation supports a wide variety of native birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

For all of the reasons mentioned here, Rockville Trails has long been identified as a priority conservation target by local and regional government agencies looking to protect critical native habitat on an ecosystem level.  

The first 330 acres of the Rockville Trails property are secure.  They were purchased by Solano Land Trust earlier this year. The group hopes to purchase the remaining 1,170 acres in coming months. Under the lawsuit settlement, if the Land Trust does not complete the purchase by February 2012, up to 185 houses could one day be built on the site. To learn more about why Rockville Trails is worth saving, go to www.solanolandtrust.org

-- By Marilyn Farley, longtime member of Sierra Club’s Redwood Chapter, retired executive director of Solano Land Trust.

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