The Trust for Public Land the Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Northern Sierra Partnership) announced Monday they had reached an agreement to purchase 3,000 acres of granite peaks and wildflower-dotted meadows atop Northern California's Donner Summit.
Under an agreement reached last week with a court-appointed negotiator, three local nonprofits will buy the 3,000-acre Royal Gorge property for $13.5 million. They plan to build trails, take out fences and open up the site to public use, now that a proposed 950-home development on the property has slipped into foreclosure.
"This is the most important conservation acquisition in the Sierra Nevada in a generation," said Tom Mooers, director of the Nevada City-based nonprofit Sierra Watch. "Some people call it the most important square mile in the American West".
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the area has long served as a passageway for travelers seeking to cross the craggy peaks, including the ill-fated Donner Party.
The property is also sacred ground for environmentalists because of its variety of sensitive habitat, from summer wetlands to dense fir and pine forests. Van Norden Meadow alone hosts more than 150 species of butterflies, 16 amphibians, 100 birds, plus several endangered species, said John Cobourn, a hydrologist at University of Nevada-Reno who leads hikes in the area.
The Yuba, Truckee and north fork of the American rivers all trace their headwaters to the property, providing sustenance for a wide array of wildlife, he said.
Black bears, bald eagles, martens and other species thrive in the area, and the grassy meadows are kaleidoscopes of lupine, buttercups, larkspur and tiger lilies, he said.
"It's thrilling to me that future generations will be able to see Donner Summit pretty much unchanged since the Ice Age", Cobourn said. "We've all been very concerned it would end up urbanized".
The groups have worked with Sugar Bowl, a Sierra ski resort 90 miles east of Sacramento, to take over the Royal Gorge ski area, which has stayed open throughout the negotiations.
The Trust for Public Land, Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Northern Sierra Partnership still need to raise $13.5 million by December 20 to complete the purchase, and will be asking public agencies, foundations, nonprofits and the public for their help.
The Trust for Public Land protects land for people to enjoy as parks and open space. Since it was founded in 1972, the organization has completed 5,200 conservation projects in 47 states.
The Truckee Donner Land Trust preserves and protects scenic, historic and recreational lands with high natural resource values in the greater Truckee Donner region.
The Northern Sierra Partnership is a collaborative initiative to conserve, restore, and enhance the magnificent natural landscape of the northern Sierra Nevada, and build the foundation for sustainable rural prosperity.