Bridgeport Valley: Conservation in Cowboy Country

Imagine driving north along Scenic Highway 395. Past Mono Lake, up and over Conway Summit, the rugged terrain suddenly opens before you – revealing a vast valley, surrounded by snowy Sierra peaks.

Welcome to Bridgeport Valley, once known as “Big Meadows,” and one of the largest mountain meadow areas in all of California.

Bridgeport Valley is true Cowboy Country. In the early 1800’s, pioneering families began using these fertile pastures as critical summer range for cattle. Today, many of their descendants still work the same land – raising cattle and maintaining a way of life that has lasted for generations.

Wildlife, too, call this beautiful place home. From mule deer to pronghorn to the rare Bi-state Greater sage-grouse, species like these coexist alongside livestock and humans alike. Bridgeport Valley contains the largest wetland complex in California’s Eastern Sierra, so countless mammals and bird species use the irrigated meadows as a safe space to roam, forage, and raise their young.

No doubt about it: there’s something special about Bridgeport Valley. Those “Big Meadows” draw you back, year after year, generation after generation.

Fortunately, ranchers in Bridgeport know how unique this valley is – and many of them have chosen to partner with ESLT to conserve their land for the future.

Thanks to these forward-thinking landowners and to supporters like you, conservation here is growing by leaps and bounds. And that’s very good news – particularly because the threat of development in Bridgeport Valley is on the rise.

 

A LOOMING THREAT

With drought and extreme weather becoming more frequent, Bridgeport Valley now faces economic pressure. Ranchers following the traditions of their parents and grandparents are struggling to make ends meet. And with rapid urban growth in Reno and Carson City now extending southward, realtors have been calling, interested in subdivisions that could slice apart the ranching fabric of Bridgeport Valley.

“Sometimes we are lulled into a false sense of security that these ranches – along with all their beauty, history, and wildlife – will be here in the future,” reflects Jeff Hunewill, the fifth generation in his family to work Bridgeport Valley’s Hunewill Ranch.

“But that’s not the case. Only with the support of our community can we make that a reality.”

Hunewill Circle H Guest Ranch visitors herding cattle on the Ranch in Bridgeport Valley.

 

FINDING SOLUTIONS IN CONSERVATION

Jeff Hunewill is one of several ranchers in Bridgeport Valley who wants to make sure that their land will stay intact for the future. Thanks to you and growing community support, Eastern Sierra Land Trust is able to partner with people like the Hunewills, providing them with tools and resources to preserve their land.

Together we can conserve this special place: for the families that work it, the visitors that treasure it, and for the wildlife that call it home. With your help, we can protect a way of life and a land we all love, and can continue to enjoy for generations to come.

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PROTECTED IN BRIDGEPORT VALLEY:

BIG HOT SPRINGS RANCH

Bordering one of the most iconic sections of Scenic Highway 395, Big Hot Springs Ranch provides substantial scenic value to our entire community.

It also offers habitat to numerous wildlife species, including a critical section of the migration corridor for the Mono Lake mule deer herd – considered at risk due to recent habitat disruption and other factors.

In 2005, ranch partners Ulrich Schmid-Maybach, Glen Poulsen, and Andreas Rickenbach teamed up with ESLT to protect their land for the future. They had watched the rapid development of residential areas near Big Hot Springs Ranch, and knew they needed to take action. So they decided to donate a conservation easement on a 75-acre parcel adjacent to Scenic Highway 395, ensuring that this section of their ranch would remain wide-open forever.

“Rather than maximizing development density per county zoning laws, responsible landowners should strive to minimize the environmental impact of any development and focus more on aesthetics,” Poulsen reflected. “Doing so will preserve the ecological and visual integrity of our wild and open spaces in perpetuity for the enjoyment of future generations.”

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PROTECTED IN BRIDGEPORT VALLEY:

CENTENNIAL RANCH

Down the road at Centennial Ranch, partners John Lacey, Mark Lacey, and David Wood also know full well the many benefits of conservation. Back in 2003, they partnered with the California Rangeland Trust to place an agricultural conservation easement on a large portion of their ranch.

However, at that time 718 acres were left unprotected – and so the Centennial Ranch partners turned to ESLT for assistance in conserving this final section of their iconic landscape. Their resulting conservation easement with us was completed in 2011.

This substantial parcel of open, irrigated rangeland protects Bridgeport Valley’s scenic qualities, as well as historic agricultural resources that drive the local economy and support the region’s rural character.

Bordering the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Centennial Ranch also acts as a wildlife “buffer.” This means that mule deer, mountain lions, bobcats, and other species use this property to move safely between adjacent public lands. In addition, the agricultural land management practices used on the ranch have created prime hunting grounds for migratory raptors and owls, on the lookout for small rodents.

Your support has allowed ESLT to provide ranchers like John Lacey, featured in the video below, with resources to conserve their land – for wildlife, for our community, and for the future:

Funding for the Centennial Ranch conservation easement was provided by:

  • Department of Conservation’s California Farmland Conservancy Program
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program
  • California Department of Transportation’s Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Program

 

LOOKING AHEAD: THE FUTURE OF BRIDGEPORT VALLEY

The risk of subdivision is greater in Bridgeport Valley than in many other areas of the Eastern Sierra. And if the valley is developed, the scenic, agricultural, and wildlife values that our community stands to lose are substantial. This is such a special place – and so our team at Eastern Sierra Land Trust is doing everything we can to keep it that way.

ESLT is now working with several other ranchers and landowners in the Bridgeport area who are interested in preserving their land. Though details of these ongoing projects are confidential until the final transactions are completed, we can tell you this: now is a crucial time, and your help today will go towards protecting more of the open, irrigated ranchlands that make Bridgeport Valley truly spectacular.

ESLT Stewardship Coordinator Sara Kokkelenberg, visiting Bridgeport Valley in 2016.

 

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