Hidden Valley Dairy Acquisition: $300,000 of Conservation Dollars put on the Block

This blog was co-written by Chris Unkel and myself.

Hidden Valley, CA | © F.T. Griggs, River Partners

The Hidden Valley Ranch land purchase will create much needed floodplains to provide habitat for young salmon and reduce flood risk downstream | © F.T. Griggs, River Partners

There are many examples of great conservation partnerships, but the Hidden Valley Dairy acquisition really stands out.

It took the cooperation and almost daily –some might say superhuman- efforts of at least 10 public and private organizations and $300,000 of conservation dollars on the block, but today, with the help of American Rivers, the conservation non-profit River Partners owns the land that encompasses Dos Rios and Hidden Valley Dairy, serving to create habitat as well as attenuate flood flow.

Near the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers, Hidden Valley Ranch is a dairy farm that sits just upstream from the adjacent 1,600-acre Dos Rios Ranch and just across the river from the 8,000-acre San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge in Stanislaus County. Only a year ago, Dos Rios was purchased by a conservation group to serve the need for more river bottom habitat.

Dos Rios plus Hidden Valley Ranch make up an entire Reclamation District, an area fully protected by levees. Those levees give some peace of mind to the landowners they protect, but they also shut off the floodplain and the natural processes vital to the fish and wildlife that depend on them. No floods on floodplains mean no shallow water for young salmon to grow strong in, no area for floodwaters to spread out and lessen threats to downstream urban areas, no way to replenish the depleting ground water, and no natural irrigations to invigorate riparian habitat needed by imperiled vireos, flycatchers and rabbits.

The Hidden Valley acquisition is the missing piece of the levee district that enables conservationists, after a careful breaching of the levees, to accomplish those conservation benefits. 

With the assistance of American Rivers in the acquisition process, we are happy to announce that the erstwhile dairy is now owned by the conservation non-profit River Partners. Managed farming operations will still be conducted on parts of the property, but much of the land will be restored for habitat and maintained for flood control.

But, for all we’ve achieved, this is also the story of how we achieved it.

From the time the deal was first discussed until it closed escrow, a mere 3 and ½ months lapsed – a nanosecond for a complex real estate transaction like this one. And it only happened because some people were willing to take a calculated risk – to the tune of betting $300,000 of private conservation money – that our public agency friends would pull all the stops out, buck the usual inertia of State bureaucracy, and produce $9.3 million to close the deal. And they did.

The $300,000 was needed for a non-refundable deposit. The dairy owner wanted to purchase a new dairy and the window of opportunity was only open on that for a short time. He needed to make a deposit on that property, so, reasonably, he asked the conservation buyers of his dairy to put up most of those funds. His deposit was “non-refundable”, meaning that if all of his money didn’t arrive at the escrow office by October 15, only two months away at the time, it would be forfeited. So, like any prudent businessman, he shifted the burden to the conservation buyers of his dairy.

It happened that American Rivers was involved with a lawsuit a few years ago which ended settling by creating a $700,000 trust fund. The money could be used by the trustees –NRDC, the Natural Heritage Institute, American Rivers and the land developer- for regional conservation work. It was a perfect fit for a loan to the Dairy project to cover the deposit. But there was the sizable risk that, if the State Agencies didn’t come up with the money on time, almost half of the settlement fund would be gone!

So the story here is that the fund trustees took the gamble, the State agencies delivered and an enormously valuable conservation project succeeded!

We should point out that the State agencies are not comprised of faceless, paper shuffling bureaucrats, but consist of real people like Terri Gains, Gail Newton, Paul Helliker, Dave Means, John Donnelly, Liz Yokoyama, Earl Nelson – any one of which could have said “this is too hard,” “it’s never been done like this before,” “we need more time.” But they didn’t. If they had, this opportunity would have been lost, probably forever. Each one of them recognized the importance of this opportunity and took personal risks to make it happen, as did the trustee of the settlement fund, as did the director and staff of the Tuolumne River Trust.

In an age of cynicism, isn’t it nice to see that kind of heroics? I think so.

One Response to “Hidden Valley Dairy Acquisition: $300,000 of Conservation Dollars put on the Block”

Irv Schiffman

A great thank you for putting up and risking the $300,000 that allowed River Partners to move ahead with the purchase of the Hidden Valley Ranch. Restoration work will soon follow and a significant advancement in flood control and riparian restoration will have been achieved.

Irv Schiffman
Chair of the Board, River Partners