New study shows 3rd of Sierra at risk to sprawl

By Reggie Ellis

It seems Californians are headed for the hills.

A new report released June 21 by the Sierra Nevada Alliance shows that the population of the 13-county Sierra Nevada region will triple by 2040 while nearly one third of the land in the region is at risk of succumbing to sprawl style development. These undeveloped lands provide a current sense of open natural areas that could easily disappear in the next five to 10 years.

Current estimates show that between 1990 and 2040, the population of the Sierra Nevada will triple to the size of San Diego (somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.4 million residents). The majority of the Sierra development is shaped by county general plans because very few towns are incorporated. Seven of 20 California counties in the Sierra have general plans that will shape development for the future that are more than 10 years old. Tulare County is in the process of updating its plan, which has not been updated since 1972.

According to the study, 70% of these counties do not have any countywide map or inventory of areas that need to be protected. Eighty-five percent do not have any plans for preserving critical habitat and less than 1% of the land is protected from development.

"Sprawl has never been good for California," said Joan Clayburgh, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Alliance. "It will be a disaster in the Sierra."

The report documents that the region has already been growing steadily with the population doubling since the 1970s, residential building permits increasing 22% since 1990, non-residential building permits increasing 35%, a 30% increase in vehicle miles traveled since 1990, and a 36% increase in registered vehicles since 1990. Tulare County is on the slower end of the growth, but the report states that all counties will be affected if the trend continues. Tulare County's population living in the mountains and foothills has only grown 6% since 1990.

The Sierra Nevadas comprise 57% of all acreage in surrounding counties. About 60% of the acreage in Tulare County is in the Sierra Nevadas. Of the more than 2 million acres located in the Sierra Nevada in Tulare County, 26% of that land is already privately held. According to the 2000 Census, about 15,000 Tulare County residents live in the Sierra Nevada, 4% of the county's population. However, the county is expecting to double in population by 2020.

While no formal documents have been filed with the county's Resource Management Agency, there are loose plans to develop Yokohl Valley east of Exeter sometime in the near future. In November 2004, Eastlake, a subsidiary of the cotton king J.G. Boswell Company, conducted interviews with 20 Exeter community leaders about the idea of developing a master-planned community on the 36,000-acre Boston Ranch, one of the largest private landholdings in the foothills. The land is currently used for cattle grazing by Boswell's Yokohl Valley Cattle Company, 24876 Yokohl Dr.

Growth in the Tulare County foothills is guided by the Foothill Growth Management Plan. Adopted in 1981, the plan designates corridors acceptable to growth, based on studies conducted under the oversight of a 14-member committee of citizens. Much of Yokohl Valley falls under the development corridor for a mile to a mile-and-a-half on either side of Yokohl Valley Drive. The concept of the plan is to move growth into the foothills to alleviate the pressure on prime ag land on the Valley floor.

"It is not a choice about having homes or businesses versus having wildlands and recreation," said Professor Bob Johnston of UC Davis. "We can have it all in the Sierra - but we need to plan now how we will do that. Smart planning can save the Sierra we love. Poor planning will sacrifice Sierra vistas and natural areas to the steady march of sprawl."

Even protected ag land has diminished in the Sierra region of Tulare County. Land protected under the Williamson Act has decreased by 61,000 acres throughou the Sierra region. In Tulare County, 20,000 acres or 2% have been taken out of protection.

The study area for this report includes all or part of the 20 California and three Nevada counties that make up the Sierra Nevada mountain range: Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Carson City (NV), El Dorado, Fresno, Inyo, Kern, Lassen, Madera, Mariposa, Mono, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sierra, Tehama, Tulare, Tuolumne, Washoe (NV) and Yuba.

"Much of the Sierra's natural areas are threatened," said Shannon Raborn, Land Use Coordinator for the Sierra Nevada Alliance. "Residents, visitors and elected leaders still have choices on how these mountain and foothill communities develop, but if we do nothing, the qualities we love and enjoy will be lost."

Oak Woodlands Region Most Vulnerable to Sprawl

The report also highlights that the oak woodland habitats of the Sierra are under greatest threat. The oak woodlands of the western Sierra foothills, where approximately 70% of the region's population lives, have been hardest hit by development. Less than 1% of the foothills' are protected from development, and much of the area lies within commuting distance of rapidly growing cities in the Central Valley. Similarly, more than three fourths of hardwood habitats are privately owned in Sierra Nevada counties with significant acreage in such habitat. For the region as a whole, approximately 68% - almost 2 million acres - of hardwood habitat is privately owned. Sixty-three percent of Tulare County's woodlands and 37% of its riparian land are privately owned.

Endangered Species

Tulare County is also home to eight threatened and four endangered species. According to the California Department of Fish and Game, the four endangered species in the Sierra region of Tulare County include the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, California condor, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep and Keck's checker-mallow (plant). Threatened species include the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, Little Kern golden trout, California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog, bald eagle, Hoover's spurge, Springville clarkia and San Joaquin adobe sunburst.

The report states that Tulare County does not have a mapping or inventories of threatened or endangered species habitats. Tulare County also does not have a natural community conservation plan. In other words, a general plan cannot protect a natural area unless it has been identified.

Plan for the Future

The Sierra Nevada Alliance recommends that residents and communities consider the following principles and update their county plan:

1. Maintain the historic development pattern of compact town centers separated by rural countryside.

2. Preserve permanent open space as an integral part of new development both to protect critical natural areas and to provide opportunities for recreation.

3. Protect and restore natural areas.

4. Maintain the sustainable economic productivity of the region's farm lands, ranch lands and forests.

The Sierra Nevada Alliance urges residents worried about the potential damage of development in the mountains to contact the Tulare County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission for more information on the local planning process. For more information visit the Sierra Nevada Alliance website at The alliance also encourages residents and visitors to support land trust organizations and others working with willing landowners to pass on working landscapes and critical habitats to future generations.

The Sierra Nevada Alliance is a coalition of conservation groups that are based or work in the Sierra Nevada region. There are more than 60 member groups that span the entire 400 mile mountain range including local groups Friends of the Tule River and WildPlaces in Springville, Sequoia Riverlands Trust (owner of Kaweah Oaks Preserve) and the Tulare County Audubon Society.

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