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Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Sutter Buttes

The subject of this story, the Sutter Buttes in California, is pretty familiar to me. I grew up a few miles from there and my relatives own some of the land that is the subject of this NY Times story. I'm at my parents right now and am not very far away from the Buttes as I write this. I was born in Yuba City and grew up in Colusa - it's too small to be shown on the map - but it's at the base of the A in the California label on the map at the bend in highway 20 due west of the Buttes. It's right on the Sacramento river. The story is about the state's attempts to establish a state park and open the Buttes to the public.

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In the video below, just after the opening, there is an orchard shown briefly, you may not notice. My aunt (my mom's sister) and uncle live on a farm/ranch just above there on one of the small hills at the base of the Buttes, and my uncle's brothers also live and own land in the Buttes. My uncles' family has lived in the Buttes for generations.

As the video goes on, it eventually talks about the native Americans who lived in the Buttes (the valley flooded in winter so the Buttes were a refuge, and it was cooler than the valley floor in summer) and it shows a rock with holes in it that were drilled over time from grinding acorns. If I remember right, the acorns have to be ground and boiled to be safely edible. Each year my family has an Easter picnic on that land - it's owned by a cousin of my mom's, and the kids are drawn to the rock and others like it. It's shown here, the flat rock at the bottom of the picture, though the video shows it much better:

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Though it's not mentioned in the story, my mom told me that her cousin and her husband are selling the land for the park to the state, part of it is shown in this picture. Anyway, for anyone who's interested, this is the video:

And this is the story (the video's better, though it doesn't mention one interesting feature of the Buttes, and another reason I thought access was limited in the 1960s, two huge underground missile silos left-over from the cold war -- you had to sneak in to see them):

A Chance to Hike California’s Hidden Buttes (Maybe), by Don Knapp, NY Times: To motorists traveling on Interstate 5 through the Sacramento Valley of Northern California, the distant Sutter Buttes resemble mountains one might see in a Disney animated movie — a compact cluster of twisted peaks and rounded knobs that rise abruptly above the pancake-flat valley floor.

Fewer travelers have seen the closer view from Yuba City on the eastern side of the valley. There, the Buttes rise just high enough behind the town to create a powerful background for a postcard. They’re so close, so low and so intriguing that they could be a Hollywood movie set — theatrical, cosmetic.

But while the Buttes may be familiar to many, entering them is forbidden to most. Few outsiders have been allowed to journey into the ancient volcanic outcropping or climb the towering columns of andasite and rhyolite lava that form the walls and peaks of what local boosters call the World’s Smallest Mountain Range.

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The Buttes became private property even before California became a state. John Sutter (of Gold Rush fame) first claimed them in a Mexican land grant. Squatters later took Sutter to court, saying he did nothing to validate his claim. A judge gave them the land they wanted.

And public access has remained limited.

“The landowners themselves, back in the ’60s, locked it up,” said a third-generation rancher, Margit Sands, whose family grazes cattle on 1,000 acres. “Before that, people could go up, take a picnic, you know, Sunday picnic, and it was fine. Close the gates before and after you. But then they were abusing it. They’d leave gates open; they would trash things.”

An arson fire in the 1960s, Ms. Sands said, sealed the ranchers’ views and put an end to free visits by the public.

Now, the state is trying to do exactly what Ms. Sands and her fellow ranchers have long opposed: open at least a slice of this rarely seen land for public use.

The state first tried to buy land for a park here in the 1920s. But it wasn’t until 2003 that California found a willing seller and bought 1,785 acres for what it already calls Sutter Buttes State Park. The nearly $3 million purchase included the idyllic pioneer Pugh Ranch, which is scheduled to become Peace Valley, the park’s showplace.

On a mild winter day, Tim Davis, a park ranger, led me on a tour of Peace Valley.

“It hasn’t been changed over the years, and this is a chance to come back to a spot in California that pretty much looks the same way it did since the mid-1800s,” Mr. Davis said as he led the way up to a knoll overlooking the valley. On top, a wrought-iron fence surrounds a tidy square cemetery. Headstones mark graves of Pugh family members. Behind the knoll, up and to the west, a steep mountain wall forms one end of Peace Valley. A single lumpy lava pinnacle called Cat Rock is in the foreground.

Below the knoll and to the east, new winter grass carpeted a contoured gentle valley no longer marred by the deep ruts of wagons and cattle on what was once a working ranch. Mr. Davis took care that our footsteps didn’t disturb the moist soil. Miles of old hand-built rock walls used as fences followed the contours of the hills and blended in almost as though they were part of the natural scene. Soon, the ranger said, the area would be covered with spring wildflowers.

Beneath the knoll, in a sloping meadow, a large flat rock suggested the area’s ancient history. The park rangers call it Counsel Rock, and Mr. Davis said it might have been used by the Maidu people, who lived outside the Buttes in the Sacramento Valley. Summers brought them into the Buttes to gather and grind acorns. The Maidu revered the mountains as a spiritual place.

According to Maidu belief, Mr. Davis said, “when it’s time to go into the afterlife, they came back to this area and then ascended.” Mr. Davis lifted his arms to the sky and looked up. “In other words, the portals to the afterlife would have been directly above the Sutter Buttes.”

Other flat rocks with bowl shaped holes probably used to grind acorns are nearby. The patterns and placement of the holes in rows suggest that Maidu women sat back to back to support themselves as they pounded and ground acorns.

Besides a rich cultural history, the Buttes also have a unique geological origin. But whether these curious crags really are the world’s smallest mountain range doesn’t seem as important to geologists as how they came to be in the first place.

“At this stage, at this point in time,” Mr. Davis said, “they believe this is the largest example of sedimentary material that’s been uplifted by volcanic activity.”

The old volcanic upheaval in the center of the valley is probably not related to the Sierra Nevadas to the east nor the coastal range that forms the west side of the valley. The Buttes just oozed up on the valley floor about 1.5 million years ago. Mr. Davis said that hot, pasty viscous lava pushed up slowly into a damp, malleable environment. “Instead of just having the material come through it, it lifted that sedimentary material, and bent it up, up, up, up, up,” he explained, showing with his hands how the block of land was lifted and tilted. “Eventually, they’ve determined 7,000 feet, or 7,000 vertical feet of material was uplifted up on end.”

The state hopes to acquire more land in the Buttes, but it is likely to take years of hearings and decisions to come up with a general plan for the park. “This is the public’s land,” Mr. Davis said. “They have a right to come in. But we are also mandated to protect this land. We want it to be developed in a way that it is not damaged.”

Neighboring ranchers are not reassured. Some make no secret of their anger over the state’s plans for a public park in the heart of the Sutter Buttes. There has been enough bad feeling to slow down plans for the state park, if not block them.

After California began efforts to create the park a few years back, rangers found that locks on gates used by the state had been filled with honey or glue. Feral pigs were killed and left where visitors would see them (there was one near a gate the day we toured). Signs bearing sarcastic, if not humorous, comments are posted along roads used by the state. One ranger laughingly calls the situation a mini-range war.

One rancher, who insisted on anonymity, said that some landowners were responsible for these activities.

The park land is surrounded by privately owned land. Now, as California prepares for hearings on the new park, some ranchers have decided to deny the state access.

“A few landowners think they can deny our access, but that is false,” said Mike Fehling, the state parks sector superintendent. “We have the right to use our easement.”

Still, Mr. Fehling said he was trying to work with the ranchers, offering help with roads, fences and gates.

But many ranchers seem unconvinced of the government’s good will. “The word eminent domain comes in,” Ms. Sands said skeptically. “That’s a big, black cloud, and so that’s one big concern.”

Another landowner, Marty Steidlmayer who said his 5,500 acres run “right through the middle of the volcano,” worries about trespassing and damage to his fences. He wants the state to limit visitors and allow them to enter only on guided hikes.

Mr. Fehling said the state was operating Sutter Buttes under interim operational guidelines that call for holding the status quo. Over the long term, he said, “we won’t plop down 200 campsites, which would adversely impact the spirit of place,” adding that Sutter Buttes could become a day-use-only park, closely monitored with guided hikes.

In fact, Ms. Sands and Mr. Steidlmayer already offer limited access to the Buttes with guided hikes on their lands and the lands of some of their neighbors, for a price.

Most hikes are available through the Middle Mountain Foundation (www.middlemountain.org), which plans to offer 45 hikes this year. The organization will also accept reservations for 45 specially arranged chartered group hikes. Each hike will take 10 to 20 people and cost about $32 a person. Charter hikes with box lunches run a few dollars more.

Mr. Steidlmayer leads hikes on his land for about $40 for each hiker and schedules them himself at (530) 682-7872. Though his few remaining outings this season are full, he will resume taking reservations in August for hikes that begin in November. As the ranchers battle the state over public access, it is only the ranchers who are allowing the public in to hike while the state park remains closed to the public. For now, the state limits its hikes to representatives of government agencies and the press.

Meanwhile, tough times, divorces and squabbling heirs have put pressure on some families to subdivide ranch land. With a few well-located parcels bringing upward of $20,000 an acre, the temptation to sell is strong.

Along Pass Road, which cuts through the southern edge of the mountain cluster, long white fences mark property lines of newly constructed showcase houses that have begun to encroach on the Buttes.

That frustrates Ms. Sands and Mr. Steidlmayer, who want to see all the lands of the Buttes preserved as ranchers have kept them for more than 150 years. Both look to the day when they can keep title to their land, but sell their development rights without taking on, in perpetuity, the added costs of government-mandated programs like endangered species protection and erosion control.

“I think a lot of the landowners see the park as the big entity that has all the power,” Ms. Sands said, “and we’re up against a big power that wants to take and grab everything from us.”

    Posted by on Saturday, March 17, 2007 at 01:06 AM in Economics, Miscellaneous | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (17)

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