Surf crashes against a rocky cove. Hills greened by winter rains roll toward the horizon. The Hearst Ranch, in San Luis Obispo County, California, is surely one of the most beautiful places in the West. And now a portion of it has been preserved for all of us to enjoy. The Hearst property is only one of the newly saved places we honor with this year's Sunset Environmental Awards. Near Las Vegas, a restored wetland offers a lush oasis for waterfowl -- and for human visitors too. In Wyoming, Devil's Canyon scores the western slope of the Bighorn Mountains. "For me," says Alex Diekmann of the Trust for Public Land, which helped acquire Devil's Canyon Ranch for public use, "the project was all about the overpowering sense of awe you get when you're up there. It's an incredible feeling." It is an incredible feeling to visit any of our award-winning places. And you can visit most of them right now. Get out your hiking boots, your binoculars, your sense of awe. You're going to have the time of your life.
For all of William Randolph Hearst's riches, his most lasting treasure is the roughly 82,000-acre ranch that spreads out beneath fabled Hearst Castle along California's Central Coast. Now the ranch is entering a new era, thanks to a historic $95 million deal thatthe American Land Conservancy and the California Resources Agency worked out with the Hearst Corporation. Under the agreement, the Hearst Corporation will transfer roughly 1,500 acres west of State 1 -- 13 miles of coastline -- to the state while establishing conservation easements across an additional 700 coastal acres, including public access to the California Coastal Trail. The agreement also provides protection against development of the 80,000 acres of sprawling ranchlands east of the highway, an area that includes vital wildlife corridors.
The Hearst Corporation retains the right to develop a boutique luxury hotel and 27 owner homesites across the ranch. Some conservation groups express concerns about environmental monitoring under the deal and about limited public access to 3 prime miles of coastline that the Hearst Corporation will still own, including San Simeon Point. But the deal's backers regard it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to keep the ranch intact and open up new areas to the public.
"It's not everything," says Jeff Stump, vice president of the American Land Conservancy. "But this is a really tremendous deal." --Matthew Jaffe
WHERE: San Luis Obispo County, CA
ACCESS: The deal was scheduled to close in January; at press time, the state of California was hoping to immediately open some areas to the public, including Arroyo Laguna Beach, known locally as Windsurfer's Beach, 5 miles north of San Simeon.
INFO: www.hearstcastle.com or 805/927-2020
Like a dark and brooding island, the jagged pinnacles of the Sutter Buttes jut from the plains northwest of Sacramento. A cluster of craggy, volcanic peaks towering 2,000-plus feet, the buttes confound geologists, who see in the formation similarities to but no real connection with the Cascade Range to the north.
Misty and green in winter, the buttes have been largely inaccessible, fenced off, mysterious. That's about to change: The state recently bought a 1,900-acre parcel in Peace Valley, in the northern end of the buttes. Dotted with oaks, the valley looks as it did when pioneering families homesteaded it in the late 1800s. Access will be limited, and the park developed sparingly to preserve its timeless feeling. "We've waited more than 75 years to have a park in the Sutter Buttes," says Robert Foster, superintendent of the California State Parks' Northern Buttes District. "We don't even have a name for it yet. It's a bit like being present at the birth of a baby." --Lora J. Finnegan
WHERE: 8 miles east of Colusa, CA
ACCESS: Currently the new parkland (and other parts of Sutter Buttes) are accessible only by guided hikes run by the nonprofit Middle Mountain Foundation (next hike Mar 12; $35; www.middlemountain.org or 530/671-6116). Buttes hikes will also be part of the Snow Goose Festival (Jan 28–30; free, but reservations required; www.snowgoosefestival.org or 530/345-1865).
INFO: www.parks.ca.gov or 530/538-2200
Las Vegas Wash
Without the wash, there would be no neon in Las Vegas, no lounge acts, no megacasinos. It was, after all, the wash's springs that nurtured the meadows, or las vegas, which offered respite to the region's first travelers. And in the 1950s, a growing Las Vegas turned to the wash to drain urban runoff.
But what had been a natural rain channel with pockets of wetlands soon became a year-round river that carved a path to Lake Mead. The channel grew deeper and wider, and the wetlands shrank from 2,000 acres in the 1970s to 300 acres by the '90s.
In 1998 the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee was created to manage and enhance the wetlands, and today it oversees the 2,900-acre Clark County Wetlands Park, the heart of which is an urban river that now carries 160 million gallons of water a day. The centerpiece of the park is a 130-acre nature preserve, with trails for hiking, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing: 200 species of birds have been spotted in the park. --David C. Becker
WHERE: About 10 miles southeast of the Las Vegas Strip
ACCESS: From Las Vegas Blvd., take Tropicana Ave. east to Broadbent Blvd.; bear left on Wetlands Park Lane (visitor center open 10–4 most days; 7050 Wetlands Park Lane).
INFO: www.lvwash.org or 702/455-7522
Taos Valley Overlook
It is one of the Southwest's greatest oh-my-god-stop-the-car-now moments: As you drive north on State 68 from Santa Fe to Taos, the road climbs up out of a box canyon and enters a sweeping horseshoe curve. The Taos Valley Overlook opens up before you: a spectacular plain that sprawls out across 2,581 acres, bordered on the far side by the jagged 650-foot-deep Rio Grande Gorge.
Now the entire uninterrupted vista will stay that way forever.
In spring 2003, the Trust for Public Land purchased the overlook lands from the Klauer family of Dubuque, Iowa, who wanted the view preserved. The Bureau of Land Management will oversee the property as part of its Orilla Verde Recreation Area. A network of hiking trails opens the spectacular landscape to all. --James Glave
WHERE: 10 miles south of Taos on State 68
ACCESS: From Santa Fe, take State 68 about 53 miles north. Just past the village of Pilar, the road climbs steeply and begins a wide curve. Park at the pullout, alongside the picnic-table shelters.
Devil's Canyon Ranch
The 11,179-acre Devil's Canyon Ranch straddles the western slope of Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains, rising from 4,000 to 7,000 feet, with sheer, 1,500-foot-deep Devil's Canyon running through the middle of it. "It's a very special place," says Alex Diekmann, of the Trust for Public Land.
Which is why TPL and Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas wanted to acquire the ranch as public property. Now, with $4 million in federal funds, this special place is open to all. --Peter Fish
WHERE: 12 miles northeast of Lovell, WY
WHEN: May 1 until winter (depending on snowfall)
ACCESS: From Lovell, the area can be reached via John Blue or Civilian Conservation Corps Roads--both require a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Mountains to Sound Greenway
The idea began in 1990, when Interstate 90 was nearing completion from the Cascade Mountains to Seattle. The Issaquah Alps Trails Club became alarmed that the newly opened corridor would quickly become a strip of office parks and development at every interchange.
Enter the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. Its goal: acquire private lands and piece them together with existing public lands, preserving a 102-mile-long swath of open space.
The plan generated amazingly broad support, among conservation groups and corporations alike.
Now, with only a few detours onto city streets, hikers and bicyclists can follow a trail that runs from Puget Sound's saltwater up and over the crest of the Cascades. --Steven R. Lorton
WHERE: From the Seattle waterfront to Thorp, WA
WHEN: Spring to fall
ACCESS: The easy to moderate 2-mile Rattlesnake Ledges Trail (pictured) is accessible from I-90 east; take exit 32 and drive 4 miles south to trailhead.
INFO: www.mtsgreenway.org or 206/382-5565
More places to celebrate
Hassayampa River Preserve
The Nature Conservancy's gorgeous riparian preserve near Wickenburg, Arizona, grew by 330 acres in 2004, doubling in size. Monthly guided walks (free with entry fee) lead past dense stands of cottonwoods and willows, letting you watch for grebes, herons, and other birds. Closed Mon–Tue; $5, ages 12 and under free. On U.S. 60, 3 miles southeast of Wickenburg; http://nature.org/arizona or 928/684-2772.
James Peak Wilderness
James Peak was named for Edwin James, who explored the region in 1820. Now the 13,294-foot mountain is the centerpeice of an approximately 14,000-acre wilderness, an alpine wonderland with sweeping views and sparkling lakes. Access from Boulder (303/541-2500) or Winter Park (970/887-4100); www.fs.fed.us/r2/arnf
Pine Butte Swamp Preserve
With the largest wetland complex on the Rocky Mountain Front, the 18,000-acre Nature Conservancy preserve in Choteau, Montana, is home to some of the state's rarest animals, including the grizzly bear. A good way to explore it is by staying at the conservancy's Pine Butte Guest Ranch (open May–Oct; from $1,400 per week). Access the preserve via the A.B. Guthrie Memorial Trail (on the Bellview Cut-Across Rd.); 406/466-2158.
Valles Caldera National Preserve
Historic Baca Ranch is now an 89,000-acre national preserve that's accessible for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. On State 4, 18 miles from Los Alamos (between Pueblo of Jemez and Los Alamos); www.vallescaldera.gov or 505/661-3333.
DEL NORTE COUNTY
Point St. George
Purchased in 2002, this 3-mile stretch of coastline north of Crescent City harbors rare plants and is still one of the state's earliest known Native American settlements. From U.S. 101 in Crescent City, exit west on Fifth St. (which becomes Pebble Beach Dr.), then turn left on Washington Blvd. and follow it to the end; 707/464-7230.
Coachella Valley Preserve
Once threatened by development, the nearly 9,000 acres between Coachella Valley Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park have been purchased to preserve a vital wildlife corridor. The new acreage is not officially open yet, but you will experience its benefits when you visit Joshua Tree N.P. or the preserve. www.cnlm.org or 760/343-1234.
SAN DIEGO COUNTY
Cottonwood Creek Park
For years Cottonwood Creek was channeled through a 96-inch pipe. Now it flows naturally again. It's the centerpiece of the 8 1/4-acre park, with newly planted native vegetation and greatly improved water quality for surfers and swimmers at nearby Moonlight State Beach. 95 N. Vulcan Ave., Encinitas; www.ci.encinitas.ca.us or 760/633-2740.
SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON N.P.
At 1,540 acres, this was once the world's largest privately owned grove of sequoias. Now, thanks to the Save-the-Redwoods League, it's open to everyone as part of Sequoia N.P. Access via Blueridge Rd. and Forest Rd. 19S09 (rough dirt road); 559/565-3341.
Point St. George
Purchased in 2002, this 3-mile stretch of coastline north of Crescent City, California, harbors rare plants and is still one of the state's earliest known Native American settlements. From U.S. 101 in Crescent City, exit west on Fifth St. (which becomes Pebble Beach Dr.), then turn left on Washington Blvd. and follow it to the end; 707/464-7230.
Coho salmon are again running up Deadwood, Karnowsky, and Knowles Creeks from the Siuslaw River, on the central Oregon coast, thanks to efforts to improve water quality. The project won the 2004 Thiess International RiverPrize. State 126 runs alongside Knowles Creek for about 4 miles east of Mapleton; get your feet wet at Archie Knowles Campground, past milepost 18. www.fs.fed.us/r6/siuslaw or 541/902-8526.
West Eugene Wetlands
Eight agencies share credit for restoration of 2,500 acres of wetlands and upland prairie. The 7.5-mile Fern Ridge Path starts in Eugene and passes through the project; get to it from Meadowlark Prairie Overlook (on Greenhill Rd.) or Checkermallow access point (on Royal Ave.); www.wewetlands.org or 541/683-6600.