The Last Two Years, Two Months, & 18 Days

March 15, 2019

“I took that [photo] two years ago.” It was 6 in the evening. In the light breeze, the faint smell of moist soil on a warm summer evening wafted off the vernal pool area Jack Alderson, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Engineer, had come to photograph. The sun had dropped behind the hills and the dusky glow of twilight bathed the masses of popcorn flowers in painted light. It was the moment he was waiting for.

Jack snapped a series of photos with his tripod mounted Nikon D800 and telephoto lens which he’d later stitch into a panorama. “Depending on the rains, the flowers in this vernal pool can be very different from year to year. I wanted a picture of it for the project and for Jim [Keegan].” In 2011 and 2012, three members of the Keegan family applied to conserve two ranches that have been owned and stewarded by Keegan family members since the 1880s – Keegan Ranch and Epperson Place Ranch.

As Jack took shot after shot, the click of the shutter, the rustle of the wind, and the noise of horses grazing were the only sounds. “That silence and calmness is precious,” Jack continued. “When I got there, the horses were up by the buildings, about a quarter mile away. I had been taking photos quite some time, maybe an hour, when they seemed to suddenly become quite interested in what I was doing. They came running to see me and one of them named Chief insisted I pay him some attention. When I took my camera off the tripod to get some close ups, Chief started nibbling on it. After fooling with the horses for a while, they settled down and grazed beside me.”

Horses grazing on the Keegan Ranch

Chief and the other horses don’t realize that they are manicuring one of the most famous and bountiful wildflower destinations spots in California. Jack along with eight others, representing agencies and conservation organizations, are about to send letters in support of California Rangeland Trust (CRT) acquiring conservation easements on Keegan Ranch and Epperson Ranch. What was once the dream of one family had become the goal of many.

809 days later, the clanging of a cowbell announced the closing of the Keegan Ranch conservation easement at CRT headquarters in Sacramento. Epperson Ranch would follow about 30 days later. During those two years, two months and 18 days, letters of support were written, multiple tours were conducted, funding was secured, the conservation easements went through escrow, and finally, they are held by California Rangeland Trust.

“When you look back at these photos Jack took, you realize why so many people from so many agencies invested so much time and energy to conserve these ranches”, said Nita Vail, CRT’s Chief Executive Officer. “Each conservation easement is an enormous undertaking and each project closing is a testament to the dedication, collaboration, and commitment of every team involved.”

In response to the recent closing of Keegan Ranch, John Donnelly, Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) Executive Director said, “The WCB is proud to be a partner with CRT in the 2,502 acre Keegan Ranch Conservation Easement to support and protect oak woodlands, deer and mountain lion habitat, watersheds, and wildlife corridors. Additionally, this property supports a number of special status species and is renowned for its wildflower resources. The ability to protect this property for future generations was a fantastic opportunity for which the WCB is proud to be a part.”

Conservation easements on the 2,502 acre Keegan Ranch and 1,547 acre Epperson Ranch add 4,049 acres to the existing 16,130 acre wildlife corridor in the valley – the already conserved Bear Valley and Payne Ranches. In collaboration with CRT, WCB and NRCS matched funds to conserve the two ranches.

The ranches boast open grassland, native oak and foothill pine woodland that provide foraging habitat for resident and wintering raptors, migratory birds, black-tailed deer, Tule elk, bobcats, the greater roadrunner, and the occasional bear. Bear Creek runs through both ranches and is recognized as a significant stream by noted UC Davis fishery biologist Peter Moyle because the native fish fauna remains intact and includes Sacramento pike minnow, California roach, and Sacramento sucker. Also found in Bear Creek are yellow-legged frog and western pond turtle, both California Species of Concern. Among special status species found in Bear Valley are bald eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, burrowing owl, long billed curlew, and American badger.

Image of wild flowers at Keegan Ranch
Springtime splendor on the Keegan Ranch

While the wildlife appreciate the valley year round, it’s the springtime splendor of prolific fields of wildflowers that draw the people. Jim Keegan, who owns Keegan Ranch and manages both ranches, used to drive a team of mules drawing wagon loads of wildflower enthusiasts throughout the ranch. Home and Garden Television, Bay Area Backroads, and Sunset magazine made the tours famous. While they are now a thing of the past, the Keegan’s hospitality is strong as ever. A wildflower access gate allows people to walk into the fields of flowers without letting cattle out. “It’s hard for city people to shut a gate,” Jim says.

Wildflower access gate on the Keegan Ranch

“Jim’s wildflower access is so generous,” Jack added. “Over the years I have seen so many people looking longingly over the fence. They have the opportunity now to walk out among the flowers, and sometimes horses.”

The spectacular flora makes the Keegan Ranch and Epperson Place conservation easements the first NRCS Grasslands of Special Environmental Significance in California. Bear Valley is renowned for an exceptionally large number of rare and endangered plants due to serpentine soils. “We are proud to be a part of preserving the Keegan Ranch and the unique beauty this property provides,” said Carlos Suarez, NRCS California State Conservationist. “From the rare serpentine soils, extensive wildflower fields and native grasses to the productive rangeland, this working cattle ranch is a great example of how ranchers can work with conservation groups to voluntarily protect the natural environment and sustain a way of life.”

“You will never see the future if you keep looking at the past.” said Jim. He looked to the future and wanted to see the family ranch preserved. With the help of multiple agencies, his dream became reality on July 7, 2016. And Jack? When asked how he felt two years three months and three days after he snapped those photos, he simply said, “Delighted.” A pause later, he continued, “It’s beautiful and I like it to stay that way.” We may have never experienced the magic of these ranches firsthand, but after seeing these photos, so do we, Jack, so do we.

First published in the September 2016 issue of the California Cattleman Magazine.