All eyes now on conservation plan

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 12/24/2011

On Dec. 16, 2011 Peninsula Open Space Trust [POST] and Sempervirens Fund became the official owners of the 8,532-acre property known as Cemex Redwoods, the largest expanse of unprotected redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The $30 million purchase from Cemex, the largest producer of cement in North America, was jointly announced Dec. 8 by the five conservation groups partnering in the deal [POST, Sempervirens Fund, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, LTSCC, Save the Redwoods League and the Nature Conservancy]. (Disclosure: I serve on the Board of Directors of Sempervirens Fund.)

The five groups envision a new model for conserving the property, different from the old model of transferring property to State Parks. With State Parks' budget severely constrained, future public ownership of Cemex Redwoods became less likely. The new model envisions the potential sale of the property to a private landowner, perhaps a timber company, after stripping off development rights and placing restrictions on logging.
"Before we discuss the potential sale of the property, we first must identify and permanently protect streamside corridors, fisheries, old forest reserves, and wildlife corridors," said Reed Holderman, Executive Director, Sempervirens Fund. "Whatever is left over might be appropriate for some level of timber harvest, but the science-based conservation plan will be critical. We're all focused on that now."
Cemex Redwoods is heavily forested from its granite ridge tops, down through its steep, rugged canyons. Four creeks flow through it. The largest, San Vicente Creek, harbors endangered coho salmon, and is the sole source of the town of Davenport's drinking water.
Laguna Creek is a critical water supply for the city of Santa Cruz. The property was managed for timber production by Cemex and prior landowners for 50 years. Surrounded by 27,500 acres of protected land, Cemex Redwoods promises great recreational access and critical wildlife linkages.
There will be time for community participation in the conservation plan, according to Neal Coonerty, Santa Cruz County Supervisor, whose district includes the expansive property.
"Because of how vested the community is in Cemex Redwoods, this conservation plan must gain community support to ensure its success," he said. "Assurances will be needed to put to rest some of the anxiety in the community about the new model of conservation being proposed."
Each of the five groups will play a vital role in the project. During the acquisition phase, POST and Sempervirens Fund covered most of the initial costs, with POST contributing $15 million and Sempervirens Fund, $5 million. Additional funding included a combined $8 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and $500,000 from The Nature Conservancy. Ultimately, POST, Sempervirens Fund, Save the Redwoods League and LTSCC will share equally in the costs of protecting the land.
LTSCC and Save the Redwoods League will lead the conservation planning phase, initially by recruiting a team of scientists to assess the property's natural resources, followed by a conservation plan.
"Part of the vision for the property is to establish scientifically planned redwood reserves and restore water quality and fish and wildlife habitat," said Ruskin Hartley, executive director, Save the Redwoods League.
Once the conservation plan is vetted, LTSCC and Save the Redwoods League will purchase a conservation easement from POST and Sempervirens Fund. That easement will be legally binding on any future property owner.
"This project is sure to serve as a catalyst for future redwood habitat protection in the region, and it can't come a moment too soon," said POST President Walter Moore.