Donner Summit Land Reclaimed From Developers
August 8, 2012

Donner Summit: Sierra Nevada Wilderness Reclaimed From Developers

John Neumann for - Your Universe Online

Nearly 3,000 picturesque acres of Sierra Nevada parkland atop Donner Summit will be safe from development, a coalition of environmental groups announced this week. Property from the former Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort and its a proposed 950-home development at the site slipped into foreclosure.

It´s one of the most high-profile acquisitions to date by land trusts in California that have set out to acquire property slated for development, writes SF Gate´s Carolyn Jones. The real estate crash brought considerable bargains for those conservation groups that still have the money to act.

“I think it´s the most significant conservation effort in the recent history of the Sierra Nevada,” Perry Norris, head of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, said of Royal Gorge. “It´s Donner Summit we´re talking about.”

The Donner Summit has long been a gateway to Northern California, with its routes of Native Americans, emigrant wagon trains, the transcontinental railroad and Interstate 80 crossing the mountains. “We came awfully close to losing this landscape,” Norris said.

“This is the most important conservation acquisition in the Sierra Nevada in a generation,” said Tom Mooers, director of Sierra Watch, a nonprofit organization in Nevada City. “Some people call it the most important square mile in the American West. It´s that important.”

The land trusts agreed to purchase the property for $13.5 million, seven years after a developer bought it for $30 million in hopes of building homes, lodges and other resort amenities at the 7,230-foot-elevation property just south of Interstate 80.

The developers defaulted on a $16.7 million loan from Armed Forces Bank in June 2011, after which a judge placed the property in receivership.

The trusts plan to build trails and remove fences throughout the property, which includes lakes, old-growth red fir forests, headwaters for three major rivers and the 800-acre Van Norden Meadow.

The groups have until December, when escrow closes, to raise the funds, reports Hudson Sangree of the Miami Herald. Leaders of the trusts were confident in their ability to put together the purchase price and then some.

They´re aiming to raise $13.5 million to cover needed upgrades, including trail improvements and forest maintenance. They intend to keep the ski area open under management by the nearby Sugar Bowl resort.

There are about 1,700 such groups nationwide, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington, DC group that conducts its National Land Trust Census every five years. Together, those groups had preserved about 47 million acres by the end of 2010. California had the most land trusts with 197, the group said.

Darla Guenzler, executive director of the California Council of Land Trusts, puts the current number of active land trusts here at 120. The groups, which range from local farmland trusts to mountain and coastal preservation groups, have protected about 3 million acres, sometimes using funds from voter-approved ballot measures.

“Acquisitions have been down during the recession,” due to fundraising losses, but there “are still some going forward,” she said. The Royal Gorge purchase and Tahoe-area efforts are among the “charismatic” efforts that draw attention to the cause, she said. “A lot of people vacation there.”