Eleven young people made history one recent morning in a farm field along the lower Tuolumne River west of Modesto.
They planted the first trees in the restoration of Dos Rios Ranch, a 1,603-acre expanse that will become wildlife habitat and natural floodplain at the confluence with the San Joaquin River.
The crew from the California Conservation Corps planted oaks, willows and other fast-growing trees in soil that grew corn and wheat last year.
"In three years, there's going to be trees 30 feet tall out here," said John Carlon, president of River Partners, one of the groups involved in the effort.
The land was bought for $21.8 million last year from the Lyons family, which continues to farm the adjacent Mapes Ranch.
Several water and wildlife agencies contributed to the purchase. The restoration is overseen by Chico-based River Partners, which has a Modesto office.
The work will add back a small part of the riverside forest that the Central Valley has lost because of water diversion and other human activities over 150-plus years.
Dos Rios is near the Shiloh Road bridge over the Tuolumne, about 10 miles southwest of Modesto.
The planting follows a detailed plan that accounts for soil and water conditions and the needs of wildlife. An example is the least Bell's vireo, an endangered bird.
"When we see it nesting in the San Joaquin Valley, it's in an arroyo willow with a mugwort (shrub) understory," said Julie Rentner, the Central Valley regional director for River Partners. "It's that specific."
The restored floodplain is expected to be inundated every three years on average. The flooded area will support young salmon headed out to sea in spring.
"This forest is designed to thrive in those conditions," Carlon said. "It evolved in those conditions."
The plan also includes small hills where nonswimmers, such as the riparian brush rabbit, can take refuge during high flows.
Backers see Dos Rios as one of the most important restoration efforts in California, especially since it's next to the 6,500-acre San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. The site also is at the far end of the Tuolumne River Parkway, which takes in current and future parks as far upstream as La Grange almost 50 miles to the east.
The partners hope to provide public access to Dos Rios at some point. This could include spots where people can get in and out of canoes, said Patrick Koepele, deputy executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust.
This group, like River Partners, is working on the project out of its Modesto branch office.
The goal is to plant 138 acres this spring and summer and 400 in fall. The work could be done in eight years and cost about $10 million, much of which still needs to be raised.
Thursday, the CCC crew planted valley oak acorns and 2-foot cuttings from other species, including cottonwood, sandbar willow, black willow, arroyo willow and a shrub called mule fat. All came from established plants in or near Dos Rios.
The workers made their way along slightly curving rows, loosening the soil with T-shaped bars and carefully placing new trees.
"You would think it's just grab and go," said Ray Garcia, a conservationist with the corps, "but these plants have to be at the right depth and the soil has to have enough moisture."
The workers used half-gallon milk cartons to keep rodents from gnawing at the trees, which will be irrigated from wells until they can survive the wet-dry cycles of the riverside habitat on their own.
The crew, based near Placerville, includes Rachael Baker of Isleton in Sacramento County.
"It feels good because I'm helping out," she said as the lunch break approached. "I've always been into working outdoors."
For crew member Chris Garcia, who lived in Modesto until he was 14, the planting was a homecoming.
"My dad used to take me fishing here, right under the Shiloh bridge," he said. "I think what River Partners is doing is very good."
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.