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Environmental groups buy 3,000 acres in Sierra Nevada after developers default

By Hudson Sangree, McClatchy Newspapers –

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Nearly 3,000 acres of Sierra Nevada peaks, meadows and forests atop Donner Summit will be preserved from development under a deal announced Monday.

A coalition of environmental groups said they had reached an agreement to buy the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort, which became available after would-be developers defaulted on their loans.

It’s one of the most high-profile acquisitions to date by land trusts in California that have set out to acquire property slated for development. The real estate crash brought considerable bargains for those conservation groups that still have the money to act.

“I think it’s the most significant conservation effort in the recent history of the Sierra Nevada,” Perry Norris, head of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, said of Royal Gorge. “It’s Donner Summit we’re talking about.”

The summit has long been a gateway to Northern California, with the routes of Native Americans, emigrant wagon trains, the transcontinental railroad and Interstate 80 crossing the mountains, he said. The community of Serene Lakes, where many Sacramento residents own vacation homes, nestles in the midst of Royal Gorge.

“We came awfully close to losing this landscape,” Norris said.

In 2005, San Francisco Bay Area developers bought the property for a reported $35 million from Royal Gorge co-founder John Slouber. The resort, opened in 1971, introduced downhill-style ski amenities to cross-country skiers and featured miles of groomed trails.

The developers, Kirk Syme and cousins Todd and Mark Foster, proposed building 950 condos and single-family houses on the summit. Their plan raised a howl of opposition from conservation groups and local residents, including owners at Serene Lakes.

The plan ultimately fizzled. The developers defaulted on a $16.7 million loan from Armed Forces Bank in June 2011, and a judge placed the property in receivership.

The receiver, Douglas Wilson Companies of San Diego, recently agreed to sell the 3,000 privately held acres of the ski resort to conservation groups The Trust for Public Land, the Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Northern Sierra Partnership.

The purchase price: $11.25 million.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the last well-known piece of the Sierra at what is really a very good price,” said Tom Mooers, head of Sierra Watch, a group that fought the proposed development and has helped broker purchases of other large properties.

Now the groups have until December, when escrow closes, to raise the funds.

Leaders expressed confidence in their ability to put together the purchase price and then some. They’re aiming to raise $13.5 million to cover needed upgrades, including trail improvements and forest maintenance. They intend to keep the ski area open under management by the nearby Sugar Bowl resort.

Already, said Norris, the buyers have secured a $1 million pledge from Northern Sierra Partnership, which includes The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups as members. Several donors have pledged $250,000 each, he said.

Serene Lakes Property Owners Association President Ken Hall said residents have raised $1.4 million, and pledged $3 million, to keep the quiet of their community, which forbids power boats.

“I’ve never seen the community respond so positively and enthusiastically to a fundraising drive,” Norris said.

The Truckee Donner Land Trust was one of the groups involved in the $23.5 million dollar purchase in 2007 of the Waddle Ranch. The 1,500-acre property in the Martis Valley, south of Truckee, had been slated for hundreds of homes, a shopping center and golf courses before conservationists bought it and preserved it as public open space.

It’s a model of conservation that has taken off in the past three decades as the number of national, state and local groups buying and protecting land has proliferated.

There are about 1,700 such groups nationwide, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington, D.C. group that conducts its National Land Trust Census every five years. Together, those groups had preserved about 47 million acres by the end of 2010. California had the most land trusts with 197, the group said.

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