Closing the Checkerboard—Land&People

Midway through my five-month summer backpacking trip from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT), I found myself in a sea of yellow-blossomed mule ears that rustled in the Sierra Nevada breeze. I was near Lake Tahoe, in the northern reaches of John Muir’s “range of light,” where wispy clouds disintegrate and coalesce again in a bright blue sky and snowcapped peaks reach toward the heavens. Aside from an occasional fleeting and spectacular storm, I had enjoyed impossibly vibrant skies during my journey. And even on this often-visited section of trail, I was blessed with soul-nurturing solitude.

For most of the last 200 miles I had been hiking north through the Sierra’s storied national parks, wilderness areas, and high-altitude public lands. But as I entered the northern Sierra, I encountered a new, invisible geography. Approximately every 1,800 steps, I passed from federally protected U.S. Forest Service land onto private property, only to reemerge a mile farther along on yet another square of public land. On the private parcels, the air smelled as faintly musky as on the public ones; the trail was as dusty, the sun as warm, and the blooming mule ears as soft and bright. Yet these similarities disguised a landscape in jeopardy.

Checkered Past

Without even knowing it, I was traversing what is known as a “checkerboard” pattern of land ownership, the legacy of 19th-century federal land policy and a decision by the Union Pacific Railroad to build a railroad north of Lake Tahoe in 1867. During the 19th century, the federal government surveyed much of America’s public domain into square-mile “sections” of land, and to support construction of railroads it granted railway companies a 400-foot right-of-way and alternating sections–each approximately 640 acres–up to 20 miles back from the tracks on either side. The sections not granted to the railroad were retained by the government.

In the Sierra–and elsewhere in the West where railroad construction created checkerboard lands– the idea was that railroads would sell their sections to pay for construction. But especially in mountainous regions, the railroads ended up retaining many private sections while many public sections eventually became part of the national forests. In the 1980s many of the former railroad sections in the Sierra were bought by logging companies, including Sierra Pacific Industries, now the largest private landowner in California.

Checkerboard ownership can present problems for communities, as they try to guide development, and for federal land managers working to maximize the value of public lands for recreation, water quality, forestry, and wildlife habitat. While the goal of 19th-century land policy was simply to spread development across the public domain, 21st-century goals are more complicated. Communities and land managers seek to guide development into sustainable patterns; preserve land-based economic activity, such as forestry, recreation, and tourism; conserve large, contiguous swaths of wildlife habitat; and preserve the watersheds that supply drinking water to 22 million Californians. In short, they seek to create a rational, planned future for a region in which land was originally distributed in a very arbitrary way.

Contemporary Challenges

“It’s a unique situation,” says Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, which works to protect land in the northern Sierra. “If you go south along the range at 6,000 feet or above, almost all of that land the length of the Sierra is either national park or national forest, and a good chunk of it is designated as wilderness. In the northern Sierra we have a big, conspicuous gap in land protection that is part of our inheritance from the railroad.” One big concern is that the land will be developed as it becomes less valuable for logging. Just hours from Sacramento, Reno, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the growing communities of California’s Central Valley, the northern Sierra is booming, its population expected to more than double in the next three decades.

“As timber becomes less economically viable, forest landowners are going to start looking to new sources of revenue from those lands. It’s already happening in some places,” says Steve Frisch, director of natural resources for the Sierra Business Council, a nonprofit association of more than five hundred businesses, public agencies, and individuals working to secure the social, environmental, and financial health of the Sierra Nevada.

Frisch worries that such development could damage the region’s tourist economy by preventing access to recreational resources, such as the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, that currently depend on a mosaic of public and private land. According to a 2002 report from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy Working Group, recreational tourism accounts for 16 percent of the region’s annual estimated payroll. “If access to checkerboard parcels were to be cut off,” Frisch says, “the economic impact would be immense.”

Frisch also worries that the region’s ambience and sense of place would be lost if checkerboard lands are split up and developed. “Sierra communities have benefited from a landuse pattern in which land has been largely undeveloped, with small rural communities surrounded by huge swathes of open space,” he says. “If you start changing how those private parcels in the checkerboard are used, you begin changing their relationship to the local communities.” Another problem resulting from checkerboard development is fire protection–the difficulty of protecting valuable homes interspersed with timberland.

Fragmentation of natural lands due to development also would be bad for nature, explains Dennis Machida, executive director of the California Tahoe Conservancy, an independent state agency that works to preserve the Tahoe Basin’s environment and recreational opportunities. “From wildlife habitat and the composition of our forests to water quality and air quality, patterns of subdivision have a large impact on biodiversity and on how well the ecosystem functions.”

Consolidating the Future

In the game of checkers, only one player can win, or the game can end in a draw. But for the economic, political, and environmental players on the Sierra checkerboard, as well as anyone who values protected open space and natural public lands, it’s not so simple. Fortunately, with careful planning, partnerships, negotiations, and scientific assessments of the resources at stake, there is potential for everyone to win.

In 2003, the Trust for Public Land, in partnership with local communities, landowners, public agencies, and other nonprofits, launched the Sierra Checkerboard Initiative: Forests for the Future, a five-year effort to consolidate land ownership in the northern Sierra by buying private parcels for public ownership, protecting parcels that remain private with conservation easements, exchanging private and public parcels, and entering into agreements with private landowners to manage land in an environmentally sound way. Building on 30 years of TPL experience protecting land in the northern Sierra, the effort seeks to conserve the best scenic and recreational areas and the habitat and watersheds most at risk, while protecting the economic benefits associated with sustainable forestry and recreation.

“We’re not just looking at habitat or recreation or forestry,” says David Sutton, director of TPL’s Sierra Nevada Program. “We’re looking at all factors, taking a holistic approach. That’s what makes this initiative so important–and so challenging.” Consolidating ownership would create significant efficiencies for public land managers, says Rich Johnson, until recently the district ranger for the Foresthill Ranger District of Tahoe National Forest.

“Where land is all broken up and where you may have conflicting ownership principles and difficulties maintaining property boundaries, there is increased complexity and cost,” Johnson says. “Consolidating land ownership and reducing that complexity would be much more economical.”

Red Emmerson, president of Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), the largest private owner of Sierra checkerboard land, also understands the practicalities of ownership consolidation. “It makes good sense, from both a business and recreational standpoint, to consolidate certain checkerboard parcels into a more efficient ownership pattern,” Emmerson says. “By simplifying land ownership where appropriate, Sierra Pacific Industries, the U.S. Forest Service, and the public can benefit from increased land management efficiency, especially in terms of fire suppression and resource management.”

In 2001, TPL entered into an agreement with SPI to bring key checkerboard recreation lands into public ownership. Since then, working with Senator Dianne Feinstein and other members of Congress, the California Resources Agency, the forest service, and SPI, TPL has helped protect the wild and scenic canyon of the North Fork American River in the Tahoe National Forest and a popular recreation area along the South Yuba River in the South Yuba River State Park.

The Sierra Checkerboard Initiative pushes this work beyond individual projects to a coordinated approach across a broad swath of the Sierra. The first phase of the initiative, now nearing completion, has been a detailed scientific assessment of the biological, recreational, and forestry value of checkerboard parcels. Commissioned by TPL, funded by the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund and the Bella Vista Foundation, and conducted by the Conservation Biology Institute, the study will help inform TPL, its partners, and private landowners about which areas are best suited to particular uses or conservation strategies.

“The scientific assessment will help us identify areas that are critical from a biological standpoint and maximize our ability to protect those areas,” says Sue Britting of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, a coalition of conservation organizations, scientists, businesses, and others working to protect wildlife, habitats, and watersheds in the Sierra Nevada. “This is important because we’re interested in conserving high-quality habitats as well as recreational areas.”

Succeeding phases of the initiative will include working with the Forest Service, landowners, and community groups to target specific parcels for acquisition, easement, management agreement, or trade; working with Congress, the state, foundations, and private donors to assemble funding; and negotiating with willing landowners to bring key parcels into public ownership.

“As the project proceeds, I hope that we can consolidate large areas in public ownership so that management of those areas can be consistent, and that areas owned by private interests can continue to provide an economic engine for the Sierra in the form of sustainable logging,” says Jerry Tone, a member of TPL’s national board of directors who is advising on the initiative.

For those of us who use the northern Sierra for recreation, the potential benefits of consolidated land ownership are manifold. These may include expanded access to the backcountry through new trailheads and parking areas. More important, the scenic quality of our favorite trails and stream environments would be protected. In short, the northern Sierra would be closer in fact to how it seems when one hikes the Pacific Crest Trail–a seamless natural and recreational landscape.

“The goals of this effort are even more significant than they look on the map,” says Dennis Machida of the California Tahoe Conservancy. “This isn’t just about acquiring black-and-white squares on a board. It’s an opportunity to develop a unified approach to caring for the landscape. This is, after all, the most biologically diverse region in the state as well as a place where we can still go to find solitude and inspiration. By reconnecting to this natural environment, we can enrich our sense of self and of community.”

If the public-private process embodied in the Sierra Checkerboard Initiative is successful, it may serve as a model for communities and conservation organizations in checkerboard areas across the West, says TPL’s David Sutton. “There’s a lot of work to do, and to succeed, the initiative will need bipartisan political support and political leadership. But we have an opportunity here to make an incredible, lasting contribution to the ecological health and beauty of the Sierra–and beyond.”

California-based writer Angela Ballard hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2000. Her adventures are chronicled in the award- winning bookA Blistered Kind of Love: One Couple’s Trial by Trail (The Mountaineers Books, 2003).

By the Numbers: TPL Checkerboard Highlights

Alternating square-mile parcels of public and private land are found in many places where railroads once crossed the West. Here are a few of the many projects in which TPL has helped protect checkerboard lands.

  • Castle Peak, California: 6,000 acres in the northern Sierra, including portions of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT)
  • North Fork American River, California: 6,000 acres in the northern Sierra along a federally designated Wild and Scenic River
  • Rye Creek, Montana: 5,760 acres in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, including critical elk calving grounds and fish habitat
  • Taylor Fork, Montana: 3,400 acres of prime elk and grizzly bear habitat northwest of Yellowstone National Park
  • Swan Valley, Montana: 5,000 acres between the Mission Mountain and Bob Marshall Wilderness Areas
  • High Uintas, Utah: 3,030 acres added to the Wasatch-Cache National Forest east of Salt Lake City
  • Cherokee Park, Colorado: 19,000 acres of Rocky Mountain hillside and meadows north of Fort Collins
  • Icicle Ridge, Washington: 2,700-acre ridge adjacent to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness added to Wenatchee National Forest