It's good orchard land here along the banks of the Sacramento River, nearly 70 miles north of Sacramento, as a recent planting attests. Ranks of young trees sink their tap roots into the rich loam. In a year or two, these saplings will tower over the two men who now walk the rows, evaluating the progress of their project.
This bucolic agrarian scene is interrupted abruptly by the appearance of a black-tailed deer bursting through the foliage. It's a big buck, with sunlight glinting off its impressive set of antlers. In a few stiff-legged bounds, it disappears from sight.
Deer in an orchard usually isn't the kind of sight that gladdens a farmer's heart, but the two men surveying the planting smile broadly. "Wow, that's a nice buck," says John Carlon, as his partner, Tom Griggs, nods appreciatively. "And it's a good indicator that we're on the right track."
"River Partners reminds us that, as insurmountable as some challenges may appear, solutions are in reach."
– Amy Dominguez-Arms, director of the Irvine
Foundation's California Perspectives program
<!-- -->Technically, this planting isn't an orchard: It's a nascent riverside forest, part of an ambitious plan to restore thousands of acres of wildlife habitat in California's Central Valley while simultaneously providing enhanced flood protection to nearby farmlands. Instead of walnuts or almonds, the rows are planted to valley oak, elderberry, coyote bush, box elder, sycamore, various willows and mule fat — all indigenous species doted on by wildlife.
Carlon, a blueberry farmer, and Griggs, an ecologist, run River Partners,
"Essentially, we're taking flood-prone land near the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and restoring it to wildlife habitat," Carlon said. "That benefits a tremendous array of wild species, including several that are endangered or threatened. The restored tracts also serve as bypasses during high water periods, reducing the threat of flood damage to homes and croplands."
At one time, Griggs observes, the Central Valley's waterways supported 400,000 acres of deep, mature riparian forest riverside jungles that teemed with wildlife, from tule elk and mountain lions to a vast array of migrant songbirds. Today, the woodlands have been reduced by 95 percent; not more than 20,000 acres remain, and the wildlife largely has disappeared with the trees.
But River Partners is working to reverse the trend. So far, the group has established 6,000 acres of new forest along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries, planting more than a million trees. The long-term goal: Restoring and maintaining about 20,000 acres of forest along the Central Valley's waterways. The expanded forests allow the river to meander naturally, reducing localized flooding during high water.
For anyone who remembers the unrelenting agricultural aspect of the lands surrounding the Central Valley's rivers 10 or 15 years ago, the abundant wildlife inhabiting the new forests is astounding.
Mountain lions, absent from the Sacramento River area for decades, are now regularly seen. Flocks of wild turkeys forage through the understory. Recent studies by the Point Reyes Bird Observatory indicate rare neo-tropical migrant songbirds are frequenting the forests in large numbers. Newly formed sloughs and oxbows in the restored tracts burgeon with wood ducks, great blue herons, snowy and great egrets and black-crowned night herons. Ospreys are nesting on large dead snags.
Farmers are often suspicious of environmental initiatives, but the science-based, cooperative approach of River Partners has made numerous converts in the agricultural community. The organization has helped find middle ground between the Valley's farmers and environmentalists, two factions that have been polarized for a long time.
"Reforestation was a deadlocked issue along this river," said Rick Argetsinger, a Sacramento Valley kiwi fruit grower and plant nurseryman. "Farmers were worried that they wouldn't receive fair value for their land, and they were concerned that new forests would slow down the river during high-water incidents, increasing the flood hazard."
Conservation easements — agreements that involve paying farmers to restore portions of their lands and maintain it as wildlife habitat — assuaged most fears about losing money on land that was already subject to flood damage and erosion, Argetsinger said.
Moreover, River Partners educated growers about research conducted at the University of California, Davis that demonstrated woodland shrubs lay flat during a flood, increasing the velocity of the water while simultaneously protecting it from erosion the precise goals of any sensible flood-control project.
"That opened my eyes," Argetsinger said. "It opened the eyes of a lot of farmers around here. River Partners showed that you could both restore wildlife habitat and improve flood protection; you didn't have to choose one over the other."
That ability to balance competing needs demonstrates the kind of collaborative, innovative approach to problem-solving that the Irvine Foundation seeks to highlight through its Leadership Awards, said Amy Dominguez-Arms, director of Irvine's California Perspectives program.
Carlon and Griggs were two of six recipients of the 2007 James Foundation Leadership Awards, which every year recognizes four to six Californians who are successfully tackling critical state issues that many consider intractable. [Recipients for the 2008 Leadership Awards](leadership-awards) will be announced this summer.
"River Partners reminds us that, as insurmountable as some challenges may appear, solutions are in reach," Dominguez-Arms said. "John Carlon's and Tom Griggs' innovative approaches can inform others' work as well as state policymaking in the areas of flood protection and wildlife conservation, two critical concerns for California."