Stanislaus' Dos Rios Ranch aims to return to Valley's roots

jholland@modbee.comMay 23, 2012 

From the east flowed the Tuolumne River, from the south the San Joaquin, as about 200 people celebrated a milestone in conservation Monday.

They welcomed the acquisition of Dos Rios Ranch, a 1,603-acre parcel west of Modesto that will be used for wildlife habitat and flood management.

Government and private sources provided $21.8 million to buy the land from the Lyons family, who owns the adjacent Mape's Ranch.

"We understand the uniqueness of this property -- six miles of river frontage under one ownership," said Bill Lyons Jr., a former California secretary of food and agriculture.

His family has been widely recognized for farming in a way that protects wildlife, notably the Aleutian cackling goose, a migratory bird.

The luncheon gathering took place atop the stubble from the last wheat harvest, but someday soon, the land will support willows, cottonwoods and other native plants.

"This is a little glimmer of what the Central Valley used to look like," said John Carlon, president of River Partners, an environmental group with offices in Modesto and Chico.

California has lost all but 3 percent of this kind of habitat, said Carlon, whose group now owns the property. About 6,500 of the remaining acres are in the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, just downstream from Dos Rios.

"You have wildlife coming in from as far away as the Arctic in the north to use this land," Carlon said, "and you have Swainson's hawks from Argentina coming here."

Dos Rios will mimic the natural floodplain that used to hold high river flows -- "a cushion for floodwaters so they don't hit Stockton and Lodi," Carlon said.

The flooding will provide young salmon with extra food and protection from predators, said Patrick Koepele, deputy executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust, which also has a Modesto office.

"Those winter and spring flows are hugely important for the baby salmon when they're swimming down to the ocean," he said.

Dos Rios is part of the plan for the Lower Tuolumne River Parkway, which has several pieces on the 52 miles between La Grange and the confluence with the San Joaquin. Tuolumne River Regional Park, in and near Modesto, is part of this.

River Partners will keep Dos Rios in farming in the near future, as it works on plans for restoration and public access. It eventually could open for picnics, hiking, canoeing and other light uses.

Monday's gathering drew several high-ranking officials with state and federal agencies.

It also featured, as the centerpiece at each table, a bog of soil holding a native sapling -- golden currant, coral bell, wild rose or grape -- species that soon will take root at the site.

Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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