State pays $5.8 million to Copper ranch conservation

Cattle graze on this ranch near Copperopolis that may soon receive state funding intended to reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change by purchasing conservation easements.

The effort to protect a ranch in Copperopolis from commercial development took a major step forward Thursday after California’s Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program approved a contribution of $5.8 million toward buying a $7.7 million conservation easement.

Bill and Deloris Airola of Copperopolis have been looking for a way to preserve the land for grazing since they recently purchased it. Now, the Copperopolis ranch is one of 19 California properties that will get state climate change funding for permanent conservation easements. The state gets the funding through money polluters pay to its carbon emission cap and trade program.

Before purchasing the land, the Airola family leased the same property and raised cattle on the ranch for 60 years.

“It’s one step and we’re thrilled that the process is moving forward,” said Bill Airola, 67. “We’re just going one step at a time.”

“We’re thrilled that the funding is in place,” he said.

The California Rangeland Trust will hold the easement and monitor the property for compliance.

Joe Navari, a spokesman for the California Rangeland Trust said the easement proposal ranked very high on the California Department of Conservation’s radar due to the nearly 8.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that would potentially flood the atmosphere over a 30 year period if it were developed. (Burning a gallon of gasoline puts about 22 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)

“The ranching community wants to see their heritage protected,” said Navari. “Their culture; their way of life. There is a lot of support from the ranching community for these efforts.”

According to a press release sent out by the Department of Conservation, 20 of the 26 total easement proposals were ultimately accepted for funding after careful consideration by the review board.

Calaveras County Board of Supervisors on June 14 unanimously approved the Airola’s plan to enter into a conservation easement with the California Rangeland Trust.

In 2003, in contrast, the board of supervisors voted 4-1 to approve a plan to convert the land into what would have been largest golf course resort and housing development in Calaveras County. Then Supervisor Merita Callaway cast the lone dissenting vote.

The original plan was to construct two golf courses, 2,675 single family homes and a village center with a 300,000-square-foot commercial area on the 3,175-acre ranch. Estimates were that the proposed development would attract nearly 6,700 new residents.

However, following the 2008 housing market crash, the demand for new golf course homes in the Mother Lode area came to an abrupt halt and land prices began to fall. That allowed the Airolas to purchase the land outright. Now that Bill Airola is retired from his veterinary practice, he has time to run the ranch with Deloris and their four sons.

Navari said that California Rangeland Trust officials are waiting for the grant agreement to reach them and are looking for funding to complete the purchase of the easement. According state documents, the Airolas will be paid $7.7 million to give up their development rights, or $2,380 an acre. The recent state decision provides 75 percent of the total cost, or $5.8 million.

Navari said the ranch will have to adhere to specific guidelines under the restrictions of the state program to ensure the lands meet conservation goals.

“The basic restrictions will be no subdivisions,” said Navari. “Only a certain number of homes will be able to be placed on the property, only for family, pretty much.”

A survey of the land found that the project will protect significant water sources from development and will help protect the habitats of deer, wild turkey, beaver, bobcats, tricolored blackbirds and a nesting pair of bald eagles among other waterfowl and wading birds.

The Airolas still have a long process ahead of them. Before the zoning on the area can change, Calaveras County Planning Department director Peter Maurer said a general plan amendment and rezone application will have to be filed by the owners of the property and accepted by the county board of supervisors. The Airolas said they won’t start rezoning until they have an agreement with the California Rangeland Trust.

A 264-acre farm near Farmington in San Joaquin County is also slated for conservation. The land is currently used to grow walnuts and mature zinfandel grapes. In the future, the owners hope to convert the site to walnut production.

In its first year, the state program committed $4.6 million to agricultural conservation easements. This year it committed an additional $37.4 million in conservation funds to California landowners.

The $37.4 million in grant awards are expected to protect 18,988 acres of agricultural land by limiting development. The aim is to curb vehicle emissions by eliminating nearly 47 billion vehicle miles from roads. That equates to nearly 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.


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