“You’re ramming hunting down our throats,” said Kanaka Valley resident Richard Fischer to Lauren Fety, an indefatigable 26-year-old biologist who’s heading up the Kanaka Valley project for the Bureau of Land Management’s Mother Lode field office.
Fety said she’s gotten used to comments like that. She finds herself refereeing a bitter dispute between residents of a tranquil valley northeast of El Dorado Hills and hunting interests eager to go after the plentiful native turkey population on 695 newly public acres that dropped into the BLM’s lap. The Bureau of Reclamation bought the parcel, with help from the American River Conservancy, as mitigation for flood control work on Folsom Lake and gifted it to BLM last February.
Standing at the entrance to the parcel, 1.4 miles up Kanaka Valley Road, Fety explained her agency’s mission. “By law, by policy and by culture we strive to find the best use of the land — to balance economic, ecological and recreation uses.”
The planning process is currently hung up on the latter use. Fety’s also going to have to figure out a way to keep Kanaka Valley visitors from burning the place down. There’s no water and no fire service out there.
The valley is named for Hawaiians who worked at Sutter’s Fort and settled in the valley before the Gold Rush. They later mixed with local Nisenan tribes.
Fety is not shy in advocating multiple public uses of the land, and says she’s all for hiking, bird watching, kite flying, picnicking, geocaching and, yes, hunting.
And that’s where the pleasant 26-year-old in the tan uniform has run afoul of local residents like Fischer, who worry not only about stray gunfire but that the polite card-carrying NRA members currently attending planning meetings are the likeable extreme of a gun-toting population that has a less disciplined side.
In the past the valley has seen rampant and illegal off-road use, including “lots of shooting, huge bonfires, vandalism, truckloads of trash” in the nearby Pine Hill Ecological Preserve, said Jon Olson, a 34-year Kanaka Valley resident. He’s adamant that the area is too small and too residential to allow hunting, no matter how restricted.
Olson is one of nine members of a subcommittee Fety formed to try to reach agreement on the hunting issue.
Another member, Mark Hennelly, is the vice president of the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance, a hunting rights and wildlife conservation organization. “Hunting can be undertaken in a very safe manner,” he said. “Statistically it’s a safe sport.”
He cites laws that prohibit shooting within 100 feet of, or across, public roads and also bar any hunting within 1,500 yards of residences and outbuildings.
Hunting advocates are willing to consider a lottery system to limit their numbers in Kanaka Valley, Hennelly said, and have already offered to constrain their weaponry to shotguns, archery or air-powered pellet guns. He’s hoping to see hunting allowed from September through January, plus a seven-week spring turkey season, leaving the summer months gun-free.
Olson and Hennelly represent the two communities Fety is trying to reconcile — the “community of locale,” the families that live in the area, and the “community of interest,” members of the greater public who would like to use the land.
Less obvious members of the “community of interest” include historians, Native Americans, Hawaiians, bird watchers, hikers, educators and naturalists — the area is full of rare plants. One reason the area was selected is that it connects and provides access to two landlocked portions of the Pine Hill Ecological Preserve, a designated environmental “Area of Critical Environmental Concern,” or, as Fety puts it, a “full on, legitimate, biological hot spot” because of the rare gabbro plants found there.
In public meeting No. 6, coming up April 7, Fety will once again try to achieve 80 percent agreement on the divisive hunting issue. Her hope is to create a pre-vetted “community based recommendation” that she and her field office-mates can build a management plan around.
Failing 80 percent consensus, her office will build the plan around a recommendation they see fit, Fety said. Under no conditions will off-road vehicle use or mining be allowed, she added.
Kanaka Valley residents sounded off in protest to the BLM planning process in a March 3 press release authored by resident spokesperson Kemper Martin. He alleged his community is being “run over” by a planning process that’s “questionable at best.”
Martin alleges that many residents weren’t notified of the planning process until February 2011, after several meetings had already been held.
Standing on Kanaka Valley Road prior to a Friday morning hike, Fety explained that the county provided a mailing list that was apparently incomplete. Since then she’s put up signs and sent another mailing.
The parcel in question contains an open valley studded with blue oak, pine and alder on the east side. The north and west sides consist of chaparral-covered hills, approaching Salmon Falls Road to the west and the American River to the north.
Kanaka Valley road is county maintained up to a gate two miles in. It passes by or near at least 30 homes, according to BLM documents. DOT officials have indicated that no major improvements to the road are planned for at least 10 years. It loops through the eastern portion of the property, a fact that especially worries bullet-shy residents who drive through it to get to their homes.
Fety is hesitant to make any promises this early in the planning process. She expects some fencing, signage, picnic tables and roughly four miles of trails that steer clear of adjacent residences in the final plan. Fety envisions “enough trail for a nice afternoon hike,” but not enough to satisfy backpackers or mountain bikers.
Friday’s hike passed through groves of blue oaks and expansive meadows awash with wildflowers in the spring, according to local residents. Fety, a plant biologist, remarks on early bloomers, identifies the trees and bird and points out the famed Lollipop Tree on the northern horizon, a landmark that legions of raft guides have pointed out to their charges.
The parcel is also home to hundreds of baby oaks. Fety examined a stunted 10-footer, and estimated that it’s 20 years old.
“New oaks growing from acorns have become uncommon,” she said. “They’re slow growers, and usually get grazed by cattle or deer.”
Local residents report a history of grazing on the parcel. Some historical sites have been identified, including the ruins of an old mining camp, Fety said. But no good records have been found indicating the historical use of the parcel.
“It’s very intact,” she said. “There’s some non-native grasses, star thistle, Medusa Head and Italian Thistle here but it’s limited compared to a lot of areas.”
The parcel’s northern boundary is the South Fork of the American River, but the river bank is steep and covered with dense manzanita, dropping straight into a class three rapid, she said. No trail access to the river is planned.
Fety readily admits that parking hot cars on the side of the road in August would invite fire disaster. She hopes to see a parking lot.
Local residents fear fire in their valley. The area has seen stubborn and ferocious fires in the past. It’s not within the boundaries of any fire district, the closest being the Rescue Fire District, which Martin points out has no legal obligation to respond in Kanaka Valley.
He criticized the early planning process for paying lip service to fire safety when it’s such a clear threat to the homes in the valley, especially since there’s no water to fight fires. There’s only one way in and out, and the road is narrow in places. School buses aren’t allowed down it. Martin’s press release states State Farm, Allstate and Farmers Insurance won’t insure homes in the valley.
Fety countered Martin’s concern with a promise that BLM will draft a fire plan when the time comes, and promised that the BLM will clear defensible space along the road and near residences.
Fety insists that hunting can coexist with other uses of public lands. She argues that hunters and hikers use opposite ends of the day. Hunting is much better very early and very late in the day, whereas most hiking occurs midday, she said.
Kanaka Valley resident Fischer replied, “I have three girls and I’m up and down this road four or more times a day. It’s a little menacing having guys standing around here with loaded guns.”
Fischer, like other residents, also worries about marijuana cultivation on BLM land. Fety deflects this charge: “When it was private we couldn’t go in there. Now that it’s public we can get our feet on the ground and try to monitor what’s going on here.”
Fety cites Cronan Ranch in Pilot Hill as a local BLM project that mixes hunting and hiking, along with geocashing, heavy equestrian use and other recreational activities successfully. “There’s been no accidents out there other than a few horses startled by a paraglider or mountain bike,” she said.
Olson countered, “You can’t compare Cronan (Ranch), which is 1,400 acres, to (Kanaka Valley), which is 695 acres, half of which aren’t huntable,” he said. “Besides being much smaller, this area’s surrounded by houses and much closer to an urban population.”
Fety deflects all the negative comments like water off the back of the ducks she studied. “I’m looking forward to getting through the planning process and start doing projects,” she said.
For now, the area is open to the public. Firearms are not allowed to be discharged, but bow hunting is allowed.
The BLM has a webpage with more information about the past and future of Kanaka Valley, including maps and a schedule of upcoming planning meetings: www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/folsom.html.
The next planning meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on April 7 at the Green Valley Elementary School, 2380 Bass Lake Road in Rescue.