by Robert Price
The National Audubon
Society, with help from others, is stepping up
to buy and preserve more than 4,000 acres,
including meadowland and cottonwood forest,
along the South Fork of the Kern River. The
purchase was inspired primarily by endangered
species protection issues -- but also, to an
extent, by widespread concern that development
would eventually come to that pristine corner of
the Kern River Valley.
I hope the right people
are taking notes.
If only we'd heard from
that organization, or others with similar goals,
when Bakersfield's most stunning (and, now, most
endangered) vista was relatively affordable, and
probably available, 15 years ago. If only we'd
heard from city leaders when few had yet
envisioned Santa Clarita-style hillside
development on the northeast bluffs.
We can envision that
Thank God somebody is
buying the Sprague Ranch to keep those rolling
hills 48 miles to the east from eventually
turning into high-dollar lots, too. There's
space elsewhere, closer to existing population
centers, for people to live.
Twenty-five years after
the Nature Conservancy of California acquired
land on the South Fork, the Audubon Society has
moved in next door, doubling the size of the
Kern River Preserve and ensuring we'll stay
adequately stocked in those underappreciated
local commodities, wildflowers and open space.
There were conversations
about the bluffs years ago, too, but nothing
came of them.
Arthur Unger of the Sierra
Club wrote a letter to the Bakersfield Planning
Commission, back when it was developing the 1990
Metropolitan Bakersfield Habitat Conservation
Plan, saying the city had an opportunity at that
time to "acquire a portion of the San Joaquin
Valley bioregion" and prevent Bakersfield from
becoming "another soul-stifling metropolis."
Deduct points for
hyperbole but give Unger credit for sensing
Wrote Unger: "If these
expensive lands (on and near the bluffs) are not
brought into the public domain soon,
infrastructure will approach them and their
price will increase beyond reach."
And that's exactly what
Instead of trying to buy
the bluffs as habitat preserve, the city bought
the environmentally sensitive Lokern region near
Buttonwillow. That decision made economic sense
at the time and took valuable habitat off the
table, sparing it from potentially damaging
uses. But it failed to address the eventual
development of the city's greatest aesthetic
resource -- the bluffs.
Now we've got a developer,
General Holdings Inc., that's clearly thumbing
its nose at the intent of the trail preservation
agreement it endorsed in September 2003.
The Sacramento company's
ability to develop portions of its 880 acres on
those bluffs hinges on its willingness to place
city-owned easements -- linear parks
specifically for the use of hikers, runners,
cyclists and equestrians -- throughout the area,
But next month General
Holdings will impose a five-year
no-more-trespassing lockdown on its land,
precisely the length of time that's required to
void the "prescriptive easement" that has most
likely been created by the public's open,
obvious and long-standing recreational use of
Since no one posted "No
Trespassing" signs all those years, the land
essentially became -- and General Holdings would
argue this, of course -- public land. Closing it
completely now, in theory, reverses that.
But the sudden privacy
also might tempt General Holdings to start
disking up the land, cutting hills and filling
ravines, creating possible erosion issues and
depriving the rest of us of the access OK'd by
the company just 18 months ago.
Any development on the
bluffs will at some point almost certainly come
before the Bakersfield City Council. As the
property owner, General Holdings has development
rights, but the city gets to decide how many
lots go in, and where.
The further General
Holdings deviates from the letter, intent and
spirit of that 2003 agreement, the fewer and
smaller their lots become, if the City Council's
growing irritation is any indication.
Here's the greater lesson
for us all: Let's not let it come to this
anymore. There are places where development
makes sense and places where it doesn't.
Let's find the places
worth preserving, whether it's for parks or
wildlife habitat, and start dreaming big -- now,
while the land is less expensive than it will be
in 15 years.
The National Audubon
Society has done just that at Sprague Ranch,
near the mountain town of Weldon. Good thing
somebody is looking ahead.
Robert Price appears each
Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Read his columns