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Foothill Legacy program hopes to save Stanislaus County grasslands
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Rangelands in Stanislaus County are falling victim to development and environmental groups are hoping to do something about.  

At an information session held in Modesto on Aug. 12, representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presented interested ranchers with the California Foothills Legacy Area conservation easements program. The voluntary program would allow ranchers the option to join a legally binding agreement with the federal government in which the government would buy some rights of the land in order to conserve the area. In turn, the ranchers would continue to privately own the land, but the easement holder would control whether or not they can develop on it.  

Also, ranchers who do decide to sign up for the conservation easements would receive a cash payment based on the value of their land.  

Mark Plez ,Chief of Refuge Planning at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that the program allows for ranchers to continue maintaining the sanctity of their land, while preserving an integral part of the areas environmental landscape.  

“A lot of these families have had these ranches in their family for generations,” said Plez. “The feedback we’ve been getting from ranchers has been really positive.” 

Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is looking at 40 possible candidates in the areas of Mariposa, Merced and Stanislaus counties.  

As of 2010, local, state and national land trusts held conservation easements in some 48 million acres of private land, an increase of 10 million since 2005, according to the Land Trust Alliance.  

In Stanislaus County alone, 430,000 acres of rangeland is being looked at for its eligibility for possible easements.  

Kim Forrest, refugee manager for the San Luis Refugee Complex stated the San Joaquin Valley in particular is in desperate need for conservation efforts, citing the dwindling populations of  animals like the San Joaquin kit fox, a subspecies of the kit fox that lives in mostly Central Valley grasslands.  

According to Forrest, habitat fragmentation and continuing development have led to a serious decline in not just the kit fox, but also migratory birds that make these rangelands their home.  

Forrest stated the by applying these easement programs, ranchers can keep their land, but also subsequently help save the environment. 

“The intent is to keep them ranching,” said Forrest. “This way, we can get our cake and eat it too.” 

Bill Coates, a local rancher who owns 2,200 acres of rangeland in the Western Stanislaus county region, said he’s interested in the program, but still needs to do more research before making a decision.  

“We’re very cautious when dealing with the government,” said Coates. “This can definitely fit into our agenda, but we don't want to be held hostage.”