Paradise preserved

From Alaska to Southern California, Sunset honors the West's top 10 environmental successes

Lora J. Finnegan

If you love the outdoors, if you love the American West, if you love wildflowers, wild creatures, and wide-open spaces ― well, you're going to love the 10 wild areas Sunset celebrates in our 2007 Environmental Awards.

Our roster of preserved paradises includes Alaska tundra, a Hawaiian rain forest, and some of the most spectacular coastline to be found anywhere. Our 10 winners are amazing success stories, won by complex public-private partnerships (we list only the key players here). Head out this month and you can explore many of these preserves, from Arizona to Hawaii's remote Waimea Valley; others will become accessible over time.

Champions of the West
1. Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge

At more than 3 million acres, the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge might seem, well, big enough. But key habitats were missing ― until now. The Conservation Fund (with the Richard King Mellon Foundation and others) acquired two major parcels in this southwestern Alaskan refuge: 13,000 acres at Canoe Bay, loaded with migratory birds and home to salmon-spawning streams. And 37,000 acres at Morzhovoi Bay, tundra teeming with caribou and perhaps the state's highest density of brown bears. Backpack, fish, hike, or just bliss out amid nature's abundance.

Learn more: http://alaskapeninsula.fws.gov, 907/246-4250 (visitor center; closed Sun through Apr), or 907/246-3339 (main office)

2. Santa Lucia Ranch and Rancho Seco, Arizona

Vast stretches of grassland and a passing way of life ― that's what was saved at Santa Lucia Ranch and Rancho Seco, 60 miles southwest of Tucson. It's Pima County's largest single private-land conservation project ― 36,000 acres of ranchland. "It's 13 miles long by 6 miles wide," says Diana Freshwater of Arizona Open Land Trust. "As big as the footprint of the urban core of Tucson!" The job took a partnership of the trust, ranchers, local government, and voters, who passed a bond program. Now cowpokes will keep riding the open range, and the proposed ranchettes will never be built.

Learn more: www.aolt.org or 520/577-8564

3. Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act

Signed into law last fall, the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act set aside 275,000 acres of new wilderness and designated the newest federal Wild and Scenic River ― a 21-mile stretch of the Black Butte River in Mendocino County. The new wilderness is not one contiguous swath but adds acreage or protection to various wildlands, like the King Range (north of Fort Bragg) and the Cache Creek area. And it protects everything from amazing wildflower displays to imperiled salmon and steelhead runs. Lands will be managed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.

Learn more: www.wilderness.net or www.wilderness.org/WhereWeWork/California/NCaliforniaWild.cfm

4. San Timoteo Canyon, California

Big tracts of open land aren't easy to come by in Southern California, much less conserve. But in the case of San Timoteo Canyon, a 174-acre land donation from producer Gale Anne Hurd ( The Terminator, Aliens) got the ball rolling. The Riverside Land Conservancy and other organizations have helped acquire an additional 8,000 acres in San Timoteo Canyon and are well on the way toward a goal of 10,000 acres for a future state park (the park is designated, but it's not yet open to the public).

Learn more: www.riversidelandconservancy.org or 951/788-0670 5. Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument

It's the nation's newest national monument ― nearly 140,000 square miles of largely uninhabited islands, atolls, and coral reefs. The monument is so big (Australia's Great Barrier Reef could fit inside it) that its creation was one of the world's largest single acts of conservation. These waters will forever give safe haven to seabirds by the millions, endangered plants, and rare animals like the Hawaiian monk seal. The preserved area starts 160 miles west of Kauai, stretches 1,200 miles, and includes Midway Atoll, which is open to limited visitation (permit required).

Learn more: www.hawaiireef.noaa.gov or 808/397-2660; www.fws.gov/midway or 808/792-9530

6. Waimea Valley, Hawaii

On Oahu's North Shore, the Waimea Valley Audubon Center showcases the valley's unique birds and plants (like the Hawaiian moorhen and the Hibiscus kokio) and acts as a window into traditional Hawaiian culture. Threatened by potential development, the valley was saved by a coalition of public and private groups; the Office of Hawaiian Affairs now has the title to the 1,875-acre valley. Explore miles of trails in a botanical garden, picnic in a rain forest, or swim beneath a 35-foot waterfall.

Learn more: www.audubon.org or 808/638-9199

7. Madison River, Montana

The Madison River is one of the West's most famous fly-fishing rivers, and its $3 Fishing Bridge (on the south side of U.S. 287 in the upper Madison Valley) is one of the spots best loved by anglers. The Trust for Public Land has helped save 1,700 acres and walk-in access to more than a mile of the Madison's heart. And downriver, at Sun Ranch, TPL and a raft of activists are working to save 12,000 more acres. For anglers, it's cold, clear fishing heaven.

Learn more: www.tpl.org or 406/994-4042

8. Ojito Wilderness, New Mexico

The first new wilderness designation in this state in more than 15 years encompasses more than 11,000 acres of picturesque arroyos, buttes, and mesas northwest of Albuquerque. Thanks to such groups as the State Land Office, Zia Pueblo, and Sandoval County ― both key in supporting the new wilderness designation ― you can hike, ride horseback, bird-watch, or just enjoy any type of nonmotorized recreation in the amazing Ojito (it's managed by the Bureau of Land Management).

Learn more: www.nm.blm.gov or 505/761-8700

9. Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

Just a short drive from downtown Portland, this is one of Oregon's newest refuges. The 1,358 acres are home to more than 50 types of mammals and more than 200 species of birds. In late winter and early spring, cackling Canada geese, northern pintails, and mallards blanket the marshlands. Hike newly opened trails, or check out wildlife overlooks, interpretive exhibits, and a wildlife photography blind.

Learn more: www.fws.gov/tualatinriver or 503/590-5811

10. Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area, Utah

Its ramparts are peppered with junipers, which resemble cedar trees ― hence the mountain's name. But this new wilderness area is also peppered with wildlife: golden eagles, pronghorns, and wild horses. Saving a chunk of open space this close to Salt Lake City is a boon anytime, but Cedar's preservation also foils plans for a nuclear-waste dump nearby. Hike sage-covered hills, explore rugged gorges, or just drink in Great Basin views. The area is run by the Bureau of Land Management.

Learn more: www.ut.blm.gov or 801/977-4300