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Audubon Features Foothills Conservation In April Program

Contributed by Len McKenzie, YAAS —

The rolling foothills of the western Sierra Nevada encompass a richly diverse and scenic natural and cultural heritage. The Sierra Foothill Conservancy (SFC), a local land trust founded in 1996 in Fresno County, now plays a significant role in protecting the natural resources, working lands, cultural traditions and rural character of this area’s expansive open spaces.

SFC has grown substantially and amassed an impressive record of achievement over its 21-year history, accounting for the protection of more than 28,000 acres of land in Mariposa County, eastern Fresno and Madera counties, and eastern Merced County.

SFC’s executive director, Bridget Fithian of Mariposa, will highlight some of the conservancy’s land conservation strategies and successes in a slide presentation, “SFC: Saving Natural Lands Now and Forever,” at Yosemite Area Audubon’s monthly program on Thursday, Apr. 13, at the United Methodist Church on 6th Street in downtown Mariposa. The program will begin at 7 p.m.

SFC, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, public benefit corporation, now owns eight preserves totaling almost 6,500 acres scattered around the four counties within its service area. It has acquired these properties through direct purchase or donation by landowners who want their properties protected forever. The preserves are remarkably diverse in their history, topography and habitat mix.

Several properties acquired by the conservancy, totaling more than 2,500 acres, have been transferred to public agencies. The 410-acre Stockton Creek Preserve on the edge of the town of Mariposa, for example, resulted from a partnership between SFC and the Mariposa Public Utility District, which now owns and manages the property for public benefit.

Purchased with grant funds from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the preserve surrounds the Stockton Creek Reservoir, providing watershed protection for the town’s domestic water supply and is freely open to the public—Mariposa’s first publicly accessible preserve and the largest private nature preserve in the Sierra foothills.

The conservancy also holds 28 conservation easements embracing more than 19,000 acres on private lands throughout its service area. A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement that commits a landowner to restrict the type or amount of development on his or her property while retaining private ownership of the land. Conservation easements conserve the land in its natural state in perpetuity. They allow landowners to continue managing their property, while protecting it from development and other pressures.

Current local projects include a partnership with Yosemite National Park to reintroduce the western pond turtle, a state-listed threatened species, to Yosemite Valley and a meadow restoration project on the Bean Creek Preserve near Greeley Hill in north Mariposa County.

Ongoing public outreach activities are also integral to SFC’s operations. The conservancy connects more than 6,000 people every year with the area’s natural and cultural history through hikes, field classes, training and classroom presentations.

Bridget Fithian, a Mariposa native, developed her love of open spaces as a child. Since earning her bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz, she has worked in land conservation at SFC for nine years and, since 2015, as its executive director.

As executive director, Fithian has doubled the conservancy’s operating budget and expanded land acquisition and engagement programming. Working with seemingly divergent communities, from environmental advocates to multi-generation cattle ranchers to public utility districts, Bridget has directly helped conserve more than 12,000 acres and connect 25,000 acres of conserved lands in the San Joaquin River corridor.

Fithian serves as vice president of the Sierra Cascade Land Trust Council where she founded and chairs the policy committee and serves as a liaison to Sacramento on Sierra issues. She is also a member of the Land Trust Alliance Leadership & Excellence Program. She lives in Mariposa with her husband and 16-month-old daughter and, she says, “enjoys a life filled with family and beautiful open spaces.”

Fithian encourages residents to visit SFC’s newly redesigned website, www.sierrafoothill.org, to learn more about its activities and opportunities for involvement.

Like all Yosemite Area Audubon programs, Fithian’s presentation is open and free to the public, although donations to defray program costs and to support the chapter’s local activities are welcome.

Yosemite Area Audubon will also offer a free field trip to the lower portion of White Rock Road Saturday, Apr. 8, beginning at 7:45 a.m. Participants will meet at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds to carpool. The public is welcome. Bring binoculars, field guides, lunch and a beverage.

Call (209) 742-5579 or email lenmckenzie@yahoo.com for more information about the program or the field trip.

The mission of the National Audubon Society, the namesake of noted 19th-century naturalist and bird painter John James Audubon; its state affiliate, Audubon California; and local chapters such as the Yosemite Area Audubon Society is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.

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