Wind Wolves Preserve: The Value of the Sky Above and Land Below

May 3, 2022 BY Madison Goss

When you think about the United States Military, rangeland conservation may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But, through the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program, administered by the United States Department of Defense (DOD), our military branches are joining the movement to protect open landscapes for generations to come.

Thanks to a newly formed partnership between The Wildlands Conservancy, Trust for Public Land (TPL), and the California Rangeland Trust, and with funding from the REPI program, 14,631 acres of pristine rangeland are now permanently conserved on the Wind Wolves Preserve in Kern County.

The Wind Wolves Preserve is owned and managed by The Wildlands Conservancy. The Conservancy owns and manages the largest nonprofit Preserve System which is comprised of 22 preserves across California. This particular preserve is roughly 93,000 acres and is the largest on the West Coast to be owned by a non-profit entity.

With funding through the REPI program and thanks to the partnership between The Wildlands Conservancy, TPL, and the Rangeland Trust, 14,631 acres of rangeland are now permanently conserved on the 93,000-acre Wind Wolves Preserve.

While the Conservancy had no intentions to develop the preserve, it feared that it was only a matter of time before the threat of development would come lurking around the corner. A portion of the Preserve fell into the county’s Specific Plan, which included plans to develop a new town, known as none other than “New Town”. With a strong desire and firm commitment to permanently protect the working landscape, the Conservancy reached out to TPL for help in pursing legal agreements to ward off any current or future plans that would disrupt the property’s natural landscape.

TPL has partnered with the DOD on REPI projects nationwide, closing over 100 transactions since the program was initiated. According to the DOD’s website, the program “is a key tool for combating encroachment that can limit or restrict military training, testing, and operations.”

TPL identified that development of the Preserve would pose an imminent threat to the United States Air Force and United States Navy because it is located beneath the military’s high-altitude supersonic corridor and other flightpaths.

Edwards Air Force Base and China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station use the supersonic corridor as a military training route for fighter jets, airplanes, and helicopters to travel between different military installments, as well as late-night training simulations. Though the corridor is not used every day, when it is used, it is safer and more practical to have the land below it be open space, rather than inhabited by civilians. 

Alex Size, the Southern California Land Protection Director for TPL, said, “The DOD likes to look to the next 100 to 200 years, and though the ground was protected now by The Wildlands Conservancy, the fear that it could be developed in the distant future was too much of a risk for them to not get involved.”

The Conservancy and TPL needed an organization to hold and manage the easement so they sought out the Rangeland Trust. 

“We were under a very tight timeline to meet the requirements of the REPI program,” explained Frazier Haney, The Wildlands Conservancy Executive Director. “So, we needed a conservation group that was methodical and organized and we found that in the California Rangeland Trust.” 

To maintain habitat and beauty of the land, the Conservancy employs an ecologically based grazing program. The 14,000-acre conserved portion of the Preserve hosts 3,500 head of cattle seasonally. Livestock grazing helps to improve biodiversity by reducing invasive plant species so native grasses and wildflowers can thrive. It also helps to mitigate wildfire hazards by removing dry grasses and vegetation that act as fuel for spreading flames.

“You have to have cattle on a ranch of this magnitude, and the DOD recognizes that,” Size explained. “We applaud The Wildlands Conservancy for doing it right and protecting the land through thoughtful grazing.”

In 1998, tule elk were reintroduced to Wind Wolves Preserve, the southernmost extent of their historic range. The herd is now estimated at more than 400 individuals and is one of the largest herds in the state. Photo by: Melissa Dabulamanzi / The Wildlands Conservancy

By placing a restrictive use easement on the designated portion of the preserve, the DOD has been able to minimize the risk of potential injury or disruption to the public in the event of an accident. Meanwhile, the Conservancy finds comfort knowing that the land will remain just as it is today forever and continue to benefit the public for generations to come. 

The Conservancy sticks to its dual mission to preserve the land’s beauty and educate the public, by allowing for free, public access to the Preserve. More than 60,000 visitors enjoy the property each year, utilizing biking and hiking trails, camping, and interpretive programs. 

Michael Delbar, California Rangeland Trust CEO, explained, “This Preserve is important in so many ways, but the opportunities it provides to the public to get out and enjoy the open space is priceless. We are excited to be able to play a small part in protecting that.” 

With the success of this easement and the value this landscape provides both on the ground and to the sky above, the three organizations are hoping to continue efforts to protect the 93,000-acre Wind Wolves Preserve in its entirety. “Rangeland conservation matters to and for everyone, and this unification of Trust for Public Land, The Wildlands Conservancy, and the Rangeland Trust perfectly demonstrates that,” said Delbar. “We look forward to furthering this partnership to conserve more of California’s vital, magnificent working rangelands.”

Livestock grazing helps to improve biodiversity by reducing invasive plant species so native grasses and wildflowers can thrive. Photo By: David Clendenen / The Wildlands Conservancy