Haven in the Desert

by Carrie Pepper
July/August 1992
For American Forests  LINK: Publication

 Habitat development in the California desert

The California desert seems an unlikely spot to find flourishing wetland habitat, but private landowners here in the northeastern corner of the state have found a way to bring water to the birds.

B&B Wetlands lie on the east side of the Sierra range between Reno, Nevada, and Susanville, California. Artesian wells on the property pump water at a rate of 10,000 gallons per minute to serve up 300 acres of the sweet stuff fight amidst tumbleweeds and jackrabbits.

This privately owned venture began on the steps of the Lassen County courthouse in 1988. Jay Dow Sr. and his partners, Daniel Brimm and Steve Baptiste, were the sole bidders for the 1,360 acres up for sale. Once the men discovered wells on the property, they knew just what to do.

Dow, resident manager of the project, spends his time on a variety of tasks from planting winter wheat and native rye grass to mending pump heads and showing visitors, like me, around the place. "Water changes the whole thing," he says, pointing across a sun-baked stretch of land to one of 13 shallow ponds. Binoculars bring into focus swans and snow geese, pintails and avocets and sandpipers. Situated on the eastern edge of the Pacific Flyway, B&B attracts an abundance of migratory birds; many nest here, others group and move on.

This area hasn't always been dry. Ancient water marks as high as 100 feet up on the surrounding hills attest to this area's history. Today, however, Honey Lake is all that remains of the Lahontan Basin, which long ago was a vast wetland. And even Honey Lake is in trouble. Signs along the highway boast of lakefront properties, but six years of drought have been devastating. "It's plumb dry," says Dow.

Wetlands are in short supply generally in the West. Since the 1950s, 91 percent of California's wetlands have vanished, mostly due to conversion of land to agricultural uses. Recognizing the potential of private lands for habitat development and enhancement has been a real breakthrough.

According to Dave Patterson, a biologist with the Soil Conservation Service, northeastern California has 50,000 to 100,000 acres of private land with good wetland potential. "We've finally figured out that most of the important stuff is on lower-elevation private lands," says Patterson.

Public lands tend to be at higher elevations and thus are colder and are not ideal nesting habitat. Also, lands owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are subject to grazing, which destroys nesting habitat.

It's not every day that a landowner will turn hundreds of acres over totally to wildlife. "This is a tremendous effort by private individuals to restore the local fauna," says Martha Naley, coordinator of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's enhancement program in Sacramento. B&B owners hope their successes will encourage others to take a look at similar possibilities.

Of the 1,360 acres owned by B&B, approximately 400 are now or will be planted in barley or wheat to supply feed for wildlife. Nodding toward a heap of fat burlap sacks in the barn, Dow says, "We've got more birds than we have feed to handle them, so we need to get this in the ground."

Soil Conservation Service engineers helped design the project. By utilizing natural river channels and swales as pond sites, ground disturbance was held to a minimum. Dikes and levees were built and salt grass was planted for erosion control. Dow also put in alkali bulrush to keep down the wave action.  Ponds are filled by spillover from one to the next, through underground pipes, or via a supply ditch.

"The old cowboys called this Dead Horse Slough," Dow says, pointing out the largest body of water, as we bump along in his Ram Charger. We stop on the levee, and I roll down the window. A noisy bunch of waterfowl flutters on the water, their cries music on the wind. Silver-leafed poplars have been planted along the levee and will serve as a windbreak and roosting area.

Although this complex is relatively new as wetlands go, many birds and other wildlife have already been attracted to this cool, wet haven in the desert. Ducks and geese swim in pairs, signaling a healthy breeding season. Curlews, willets, and black-necked stilts hide in the tall grasses on the pond's edge. Raptors such as goshawks, burrowing owls, and redtail hawks will benefit, and antelope and mule deer come to forage and bear their young.

Advice and/or funding has come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Soil Conservation Service, California Waterfowl Association, and California Department of Fish and Game. However, the most substantial backers remain Brimm and Bapfiste.

Our full day's tour complete, Dow drops me off on the far side of the property. He points across the marshlands toward his house, making sure I know the way back, then drives off. Sitting on the bank in the prickly grass, I watch a pair of mallards paddle against a backdrop of faraway mountains. Sun glints off the blue water as the birds' smooth wake fans out behind them, aglow in the late-afternoon sun. I recall Dow's comment just before he left: "We need these places, so there'll be birds for our grandkids to see, not just read about."

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