It is often joked that the signing of a conservation easement is like a wedding—forever uniting a landowner and land trust in an ongoing collaborative partnership. Ranching is unique and complex, with highs and lows as cyclical as the weather. So, it makes sense that ranchers pursuing conservation want assurance that the organization they are signing a perpetual contract with understands these challenges and supports their efforts to steward the land while also making a living off it. The Silva family is no exception.
The Silvas know their ranch is special. Not only is it a great place to raise cattle, the combination of vast oak savannah grasslands, dense redwood forests, and the Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River (the largest of three major tributaries of the mainstem Gualala River) supports rich biodiversity. Deer, grouse, steelhead trout, and quail are in abundance and are just a few of the many species of wildlife that call the ranch home. Beyond its ecological significance, the ranch also exists as a symbol of history and heritage for Dale Silva and his sister, Ronda Silva Schaer, co-owners of the property, along with the entire Silva family.
Their ancestors immigrated from the Azores Islands of Portugal to the United States in the late 1800s. Eventually, they settled in Alameda County and earned an honest living raising beef cattle. Subsequent generations maintained their ties to ranching in various ways, both directly and indirectly. Dale and Ronda’s father worked as a businessman, but he made sure that agriculture remained a very significant part of his life.
“My parents were immersed in ranching all their lives, and they wanted a place that they could be on the land themselves,” Dale explained.
In 1958, their parents purchased 4,400 acres in western Sonoma County near the town of Geyserville. Originally, the ranch was home to a sheep operation, but in 1972, the constant threat of predators, combined with a desire to rejoin the beef industry, prompted the family to switch to cattle ranching. As the family grew, the Silvas continued to instill their passions for their land and livestock in the next generation.
Dale and his wife, Cindy, would pick up their now adult daughters, Marissa and Rebecca, from school and spend their weekends on the ranch working cattle, fixing springs, riding horses, and exploring the open range. Sometimes the girls’ friends would tag along, which offered a rare opportunity for their urban classmates to learn about and connect with agriculture firsthand.
“The ranch is my earliest memory,” Rebecca reminisced. “And when I think of home, it is the first thing that comes to mind.”
Given the family’s fond memories, deep sentimental ties, appreciation for the land, and knowing the threats of agricultural land conversion in the area, the Silvas felt compelled to secure the ranch’s future with a conservation easement.
“All around us, there are ranches that have fallen into subdivisions of much smaller parcels,” Dale explained. “This is our way of preparing for the future and ensuring that won’t happen to us.”
In 2017, the family members embarked on a joint mission to protect the land they love. They researched conservation easements and contacted multiple land trusts. With significant help from the Western Rivers Conservancy, which has been a continued advocate for the family financially and as stewards of the process, the Silvas had some early success when funding for conservation was secured through the CAL FIRE Forest Legacy Program. Things seemed to be heading in a promising direction, that was until they discussed the terms of the easement with some conservation groups interested in the property.
“Other land trusts would view our ranch as potential parkland. That core value of agricultural use was not prominent in their perspective,” explained Marissa.
In late 2019, while trying to upkeep the ranch and compensate for the effort they and others had already put towards securing an easement, the family needed to figure out an alternative option quickly. By chance, Marissa was introduced to a California Rangeland Trust staff member at a wedding. It was there where she first learned how the Rangeland Trust was formed by a group of cattlemen and cattlewomen to offer creative conservation solutions, specifically, to the ranching community.
In early 2020, the Silvas met with members of the Rangeland Trust’s conservation team to discuss their options. Right away, it seemed like the organization was the perfect fit for the family.
“After reviewing the sample conservation easement, I guess you can say we fell in love,” Marissa joked.
The Rangeland Trust understood the value of keeping the ranch as a working landscape and shared the Silvas’ vision to allow for stewardship of the land through managed livestock grazing and sustainable timber harvesting. Testimonials from some of the Rangeland Trust’s landowner partners and conversations with members of its Board of Directors further solidified the family’s decision to unite with the rancher-led land trust.
“[They understood] cattle work; [they understood] working ranch families. There was less of a preservationist mindset and much more of a conservation-of-working-lands mindset,” said Marissa.
Over the following two years, the Rangeland Trust helped the family secure additional funding through CAL FIRE and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Agricultural Land Easement program to bring
the project over the finish line. The Silvas are thrilled to finally see their commitment and years of hard work pay off.
“It is a dream that has become a reality that is not often realized for people in agriculture,” Dale
expressed. “We’re extremely grateful to the California Rangeland Trust for providing us a way to maintain a working ranch and carry forward our family’s ag heritage without fear of one day needing to compromise. Without [the Rangeland Trust] I don’t know what the future would hold years down the road, but I do know now that an ag future on our ranch is secure.”
Much like finding the right significant other, finding the right group to hold a conservation easement requires a solid foundation of trust. By partnering with the California Rangeland Trust, the Silvas have peace of mind knowing that their ranch’s “life partner” will honor and uphold the heritage, environmental values, and agricultural characteristics of the land forever.
Photos courtesy of the Western Rivers Conservancy and the Silva family.