COVELO – The Grand Canyon of the Eel River, a vast and rarely seen wilderness, unfolds before a visitor’s eyes from a 3,200-foot mound, the silvery waterway winding north through the Mendocino Coast Ranges and County of Trinity as a red-tailed hawk glides effortlessly underneath.
Abundant with wildlife – including elusive Roosevelt elks, bears, bobcats, wild pigs, bald eagles and mountain lions – it’s a kingdom few Californians have seen or even know about. .
It’s also a treasure for environmentalists, who applaud The Wildlands Conservancy’s recent $ 25 million purchase of a 26,600-acre ranch – completing the first link of its Emerald Necklace, a chain of 10 open reserves. to the public and spanning 110 miles from the Eel River from Mendocino County to the estuary of the Pacific Ocean.
âIt’s something to celebrate. It’s been a long time coming, âsaid Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose North Coast District is home to the huge ranch, part of the sprawling Eel River watershed that drains five counties.
âThe vision has been in place for a long time to try to unify this expanse of land under common conservation property,â he said.
When large ranches like those along the Eel River change hands, they âoften get busted up and sold,â said Huffman, who chairs the House Water, Ocean and Wildlife subcommittee.
The Wildlife Conservation Board, a state agency that contributed nearly $ 15 million to the ranch deal, considered it “one of our key projects” in 2021, said Rebecca Fris, director deputy executive of the board.
âIt’s really important to have connectivity to the landscape,â she said. “For me, as an environmentalist, this is the way to go.”
The Eel River and its tributaries make up California’s third largest watershed, spanning over 3,500 square miles – more than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Calling the river “home to dozens of endangered species and rare wildlife,” Peter Galvin, co-founder and director of programs at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that “the heroic and visionary efforts of conservation … will be appreciated for generations to come “.
Galvin’s nonprofit contributed $ 1 million to the acquisition of the property through conservation, formerly known as Lone Pine Ranch, and owned since the 1940s by financial titan Dean Witter and his descendants.
It has been renamed the Eel River Canyon Preserve, and its unimpeded expanse is impressive. It is more than five times the size of Trione-Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa.
The conservation, founded in 1995, owns and operates California’s largest nonprofit nature reserve system with 22 sites spanning 190,000 acres, including the Jenner Headlands Preserve on the Sonoma Coast.
If visitors to reserve lands “are more inspired and insightful about life, as well as their own lives, and more dedicated to protecting this wonderful planet, that is the measure of our success,” said David Myers , president of the reserve, in an e-mail.
The Eel River ecosystem is home to more than 75 species of mammals, 400 species of birds and 16 species of fish, including federally protected coho salmon and rainbow trout, according to a report from Wildlife Conservation Board.
Protecting the new reserve “will allow diverse habitats and species to persist over time, even in the face of climate change,” he said.
But the future of the bucolic river canyon is clouded by a competing plan to run up to 800 coal wagons per day along a restored railway line.
“We know Big Coal is tightening its heels,” said State Senator Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who called the reserve “one of the most spectacular landscapes in all of America.” .
He refers to a mysterious proposal revealed in August to ship coal from Wyoming and Montana along the abandoned railroad line through the canyon to Humboldt Bay for export overseas.
National and local authorities are united against the proposal, which is submitted to a federal body that regulates rail freight transport.