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Tri-Valley Conservancy: Protecting the lands

Nonprofit works to ensure fresh food, wildlife habitats, clean air, water -- and scenic beauty

Tri-Valley Conservancy's Discovery Youth in Nature Program includes a field trip to Holdener Park for a 1.5-mile hike that allows the fourth-graders to behold the open landscape. (Photo courtesy of Conservancy)

Ah, the sheer beauty of the Tri-Valley. Open space, vineyards, parks, trails, ranches, wildlife habitats. Despite residents' deep connection to the land, it can disappear forever because of development if no one takes steps to preserve it.

Enter Tri-Valley Conservancy, founded in 1994, which has managed to protect more than 8,000 acres for agriculture, parks and wildlife. Now the land trust is celebrating its 25th year with an updated "Mission and Vision" -- expanded strategies to keep the locally grown food and wine, fresh air, clean water, and parks and trails that only open spaces can provide.

"We are excited to help our supporters make the most impact by prioritizing projects to leave the Tri-Valley a better place for you, wildlife and future generations," executive director Laura Mercier said.

Land trusts protect land directly by buying or accepting donations of land or conservation easements. Tri-Valley Conservancy helps landowners develop conservation plans based on their particular situations and financial circumstances. They also help determine a property's conservation value and future ownership.

In the last two decades, Mercier has seen an increased awareness of the organization, which has developed good relationships with the property owners.

"We really do appreciate them," Mercier said. "If it wasn't for them, none of this would happen."

The population in the Tri-Valley -- Pleasanton, Livermore, Dublin, Sunol and San Ramon -- has increased nearly one-third since 2005, so the need to protect lands has never been more critical, Mercier pointed out. The trick is to keep a balance between development needs and preserving the lands for future generations.

"Agricultural lands are disappearing at an alarming rate across the country," Mercier said. "As our populations grow, we need to be able to grow more food. So, supporting local agriculture to help with economic and environmental sustainability is something we wanted to be sure to include in our expanding strategies for land preservation."

"A lot of our lands under conservation easements are related to vineyards," she added. "We are working with UC Davis, starting to look at evaluating the economic viability of this industry ... how can we increase the success of the wineries."

But not only grapes are grown in the area, she noted.

"We have olive and pistachios now in the valley, and we have hazelnut and oak trees that have recently been planted, for raising truffles," Mercier said.

The land trust keeps a close eye on urban growth boundaries and the impact on cultivated lands, particularly vineyards, but also range lands, to protect these critical areas as the community grows. It also educates the public and advocates for the need to conserve land.

Partnerships are important in these efforts, and Tri-Valley Conservancy works closely with the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, the Tri-Valley Nonprofit Alliance, East Bay Regional Park District, Friends of the Vineyards, Save Mount Diablo, Sierra Club, the California Council of Land Trusts, and the national Land Trust Alliance, as well as with cities and planning agencies.

It will partner with community leaders to conduct studies on the success of the South Livermore Area Plan and economic viability for new vineyards and wineries.

Tri-Valley Conservancy also joins other nonprofit groups such as Livermore Valley Opera in fundraising efforts, donating special hikes and tours as auction items.

"A lot of people who support the opera, the Bankhead or the Firehouse are the same type of people who care about open space," Mercier said. "We are part of a community, and we try to help other nonprofits."

A few years ago, Tri-Valley Conservancy began its Youth in Nature program for fourth-grade students, to involve the next generation and teach them the importance of land preservation.

"We want to teach them about the watersheds and get them out to see the difference between where development is and the open space, seeing nature, while at the same time we need agriculture," Mercier explained.

The program holds three sessions, two weeks apart. It begins in the classroom; the next meeting is a field trip outdoors where students enjoy sweeping views of the valley and its landmarks as well as see open space and trails; and the program ends again in the classroom.

"It's fun to see what the kids retain and learn," Mercier said. "We were shocked that 50% of the kids that participated had never been outdoors."

"That encourages us -- it is good that we are getting them outside," she added.

The program, funded by grants and donations, now reaches every fourth-grader in the Livermore schools and soon will expand to Pleasanton.

Tri-Valley Conservancy also works to link trails and parks. Work is scheduled to begin in August on a bridge in Sycamore Grove Park in Livermore that will allow a trail connection linking five parks, ending at Mission Peak in Fremont. Work has to wait until sensitive bird and bat species complete their fledgling season in the trees to have as little impact as possible on the park and its wildlife.

"There is a growing awareness in the community that, hey, this valley is fantastic and that is because of open space," Mercier said, adding:

"As Tri-Valley Conservancy enters its 25th year, we look forward to continuing to protect these critical agricultural and natural lands in both new ways and proven ways with our supporters, partners and the Tri-Valley community."

Volunteers welcome

Tri-Valley Conservancy has many types of volunteer opportunities:

* Environmental educators to teach classes and lead field trips, for anyone with a flexible schedule who would enjoy teaching children about the outdoors.

* Habitat restoration projects, including creek cleanups, weed abatement, trail maintenance and realignment, and plant, bird and wildlife surveys.

* Stewardship, which entails spending a couple hours visiting some of the properties protected by Tri-Valley Conservancy's Conservation Easements.

* Events and exhibits, help with planning, taking tickets, etc., for fundraisers and at outreach events.

* "News and Views," the Tri-Valley Conservancy newsletter, is published three times a year and needs artists, editors, writers, photographers and other contributors.

* Office/clerical to help with mailings, filing, data entry, and archival collections. Computer "gurus" are always in demand.

Detailed descriptions of volunteer opportunities are at trivalleyconservancy.org. For more information, email info@trivalleyconservancy.org or call 449-8706. The office is located at 1457 First St. in Livermore.

Fun fundraisers

Tri-Valley Conservancy's Uncorked Celebration took place last month, the 10th year for the competition that allows guests to literally taste the fruit of their labors to preserve land forever. Las Positas Vineyards won Best in Show, in a contest that attracted 150 Livermore Valley wines. Sixty moved on to the medal round, qualifying for guests' unlimited winetasting pleasure, at the Palm Event Center.

The biggest annual fundraiser to benefit the Conservancy's land and youth education programs is Jewels & Jeans held each fall, with everyone donned in festive, comfortable duds. This year the 25th anniversary party, Nov. 8, will be a big one with food by Beets Catering, local wines, games, unique auction items and experiences, all nestled in preserved vineyards at Casa Real. To learn more about becoming a 2019 sponsor, call 449-8706 or email executive director Laura Mercier at lmercier@trivalleyconservancy.org.

Wildlife habitat

The Tri-Valley Conservancy has preserved 178 acres of habitat at the mouth of Doolan Canyon between Livermore and Dublin for burrowing owls and other creatures. The owls -- called "howdy birds" by early cowboys because they called out a friendly greeting in the lonely landscape -- rely on the abandoned burrows of mammals like ground squirrels, badgers, foxes and coyotes to make their homes.

Until 2014, the emphasis was on promoting agriculture, but that fall the Conservancy received approval from California Department of Fish and Wildlife to hold habitat easements for threatened species, including the burrowing owl and the San Joaquin kit fox. American badgers and Tulle elk are also beginning to return to the Tri-Valley, thanks to open space and habitat management.

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