Owens Valley Sportsman's Windfall

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Jim Matthews' column 3/28/01

OWENS VALLEY SPORTSMAN'S WINDFALL -- 28mar01

Anyone who has ever fished or hunted in the Eastern Sierra has probably spent a good portion of their time on Los Angeles Department of Water and Power property. If you fish Crowley each opener, shoot ducks on the upper Owens, or chase doves or quail along the lower Owens, you are doing it on LADWP lands. If you are lucky enough to get drawn for an Owens Valley tule elk tag, you will probably shoot your bull on LADWP land. If you like to walk in and fish Walker or Parker Lake, you are likely to spend some of your time on LADWP land. The city owns most of the valley. Phil Pister, a retired Department of Fish and Game fishery biologist, has often said the LADWP's land acquisitions in the region were both the best and the worst thing that could have happened to the valley.

The "worst" because of the way the city "purchased" land and water rights and then dewatered some streams. The best in the way they purchased land and water rights and kept it in open space, open to the public, with permanent flows in the Owens River. Without the LADWP, the region would have been alfalfa fields and orchards and all the streams would have been diverted or pumped dry, like in the San Joaquin Valley. But the City of Los Angeles was ruthless in its acquisition of land in the region, buying land and water rights even from unwilling sellers. But it did keep the valley fairly pristine. David Freeman, the LADWP general manager who is wearing a hero's hat these days because the city is not facing an energy crisis because of the Owens Valley power generation, has often said that the city "stole that land fair and square" when talking about that dark chapter in the city's history.

Perhaps it is with a sense of remorse for their past sins, the LADWP is on the verge of entering into an historic agreement to preserve all 320,000 acres of its holdings in the Eastern Sierra. Working with the Wildlands Conservancy, the city will sell this group and the state Wildlife Conservation Board a conservation easement on all of its Sierra lands, keeping them in open space forever. The lands will never be developed or sold off to developers. The end may not justify the means, but at least this dark-cloud story has a silver lining. There is a happy ending. Many water and power companies are selling off key properties to recoup financial losses or reap major profits for shareholders. The result is that open space is being lost to development. Many had feared that at some point in the future, the LADWP would begin selling off Owens Valley lands for development, squeezing out hunters and fishermen who've used the lands for years.

The Wildlands Conservancy, which engineered the huge land purchase in the East Mojave to consolidate public land holdings there, worked with Freeman to preserve these lands as open space and to assure that the public continues to have access for all time. "Hunters and fishermen were one of the key groups we felt we were negotiating for and will continue to negotiate for in this agreement," said David Myers, the executive director of Wildlands. "Everyone I know who has a history with the Owens Valley, it is with fishing or hunting." The total cost for the conservation easement is $25 million. Wildlands has already raised $8.35 million and expects to raise another $4.15 million. The remaining half of the purchase price will come from the state Wildlife Conservation Board, which has already pledged to enter into the agreement. Public access for recreation will be guaranteed in the deal.

The impact of the sale of development rights isn't probably significant for most hunters or fishermen who use the Sierra now, but a generation or two from now, as development gobbles up open space all over our state, our children and grandchildren will find the Eastern Sierra Nevada from Bridgeport to Olancha little changed from what we see today: a sportsman's paradise. And that would be a good thing.
 


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