Haven in the Desert
Casey, Carrie, American Forests
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. …