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Eleven miles of Eel River corridor, Lake Pillsbury basin protected under conservation easement

Between talk of a widely reviled Coal Train and continued uncertainty over Pacific Gas & Electric’s Potter Valley hydroelectric plant, the future of the Eel River has been a source of profound anxiety over the past year.

But there’s some good news with the announcement that 5,620 acres of remote wilderness along 11 miles of the river between Lake Pillsbury and the Potter Valley Project are now permanently under a conservation easement held by the Mendocino Land Trust.

The easement includes the Lake Pillsbury basin and shoreline, as well as the property around the power plant, in addition to what the land trust describes as “a wide area on either side of the river” in proximity to the Mendocino National Forest.

A map of the 5,620 acres along the main stem Eel River near Lake Pillsbury newly protected under conservation easement held by the Mendocino Land Trust as part of Pacific Gas & Electric Company's 2003 bankruptcy settlement. The settlement, in part, required permanent protection of 140,000 acres of sensitive watershed lands surrounding PG&E hydroelectric facilities. The acreage includes the bed and shoreline of Lake Pillsbury, riverside land along most of the Eel River between the lake and the Potter Valley hydroelectric plant, and the property around the plant itself. (Mendocino Land Trust)
A map of the 5,620 acres along the main stem Eel River near Lake Pillsbury newly protected under conservation easement held by the Mendocino Land Trust as part of Pacific Gas & Electric Company's 2003 bankruptcy settlement. The settlement, in part, required permanent protection of 140,000 acres of sensitive watershed lands surrounding PG&E hydroelectric facilities. The acreage includes the bed and shoreline of Lake Pillsbury, riverside land along most of the Eel River between the lake and the Potter Valley hydroelectric plant, and the property around the plant itself. (Mendocino Land Trust)

The arrangement prohibits future subdivision and development on the land, protecting natural habitat for chinook salmon and steelhead trout from degradation, as well as supporting bald eagles, osprey and elk often seen around the lake.

PG&E will still own the land, which is part of a complex system. Eel River water is stored behind Scott Dam in Lake Pillsbury, delivered downriver to Van Arsdale Reservoir and tunneled through a mountain to turn the turbines in Potter Valley before it transfers to the East Branch Russian River and Lake Mendocino.

But with PG&E’s decision in 2019 not to renew its operational license, changes are afoot for the entire system, including the permanent closure of the power plant and the potential removal of Scott Dam.

Having a land organization in charge of stewardship before those decisions are made was a comfort to Alicia Hamann, executive director of Friends of the Eel River.

“I would trust a land trust to manage the land more responsibly than PG&E,” she said.

Importantly, the easement provides for public access to the river and lake basin in perpetuity, which is one of the most exciting things about it, said Conrad Kramer, Executive Director of the Land Trust.

Often, conservation easements exist on private land that prevent development but don’t otherwise benefit the public. This one is special, particularly given the popularity of Lake Pillsbury and surrounding areas. The newly protected acreage includes several campsites, including the Trout Creek campground east of the powerhouse.

But, in general, the land “feels remote and it feels very wild,” Kramer said.

The agreement is the result of a nearly 20-year process that began with the settlement of PG&E’s 2001 Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. (The company recently emerged from a second round of bankruptcy proceedings begun in 2019 because of billions of dollars in liability from catastrophic wildfires.)

The 2003 settlement included a provision that required the company to dedicate 140,000 acres of watershed land worth $300 million around its hydroelectric facilities to be used in perpetuity for public purposes.

The nonprofit Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council was established in 2004 to oversee that effort. It reached out about a decade ago to the Mendocino Land Trust to negotiate an easement, Kramer said.

PG&E paid for the staff time and any studies needed during the negotiations, and also provided more than a half-million dollars to fund a stewardship endowment, he said.

“We’re really happy about it,” he said.

The land trust also holds a conservation easement on 879 acres of adjoining forest on the north side of the river donated by PG&E to the Potter Valley Tribe in 2019, restoring a portion of the tribe’s aboriginal territory.

Close to 1,000 acres also has been donated to the U.S. Forest Service.

The patchwork of easements and public lands contributes to expanded wildlife corridors, as well.

Most people who visit the affected stretch of river at this point actually go in the river, Kramer said, but he said he hopes to see hiking trails in the future that might enhance public enjoyment of the area.

And if, at some point, the lake goes away, the land underneath would be cared for by the land trust, he said.

“The whole area underneath the water here would be under our easement,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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