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Style Magazine

American River Conservancy

Aug 30, 2010 05:00PM ● By Style

Photo by Dante Fontana

For more than 20 years, the American River Conservancy has been preserving the wildlife habitat along the 17 rivers flowing down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.

“We have a lot of irons in the fire,” says David Morrill, director of development and marketing for the non-profit organization. Those “irons” include everything from seeking out grants at the federal and state levels to picking star thistle in protected lands.

Despite being geared toward preserving the natural state of the riverbanks and wildlife habitats, the conservancy is not at all anti-development, Morrill says. “The north side of the south fork of the American River is a good example of the work we do,” he says. “We now have over 25 miles of multiuse public trails – including hiking and biking trails – opening in October.” Equestrian trails aren’t included in that project, but that doesn’t mean the organization is ignoring those who prefer to explore nature on horseback, and Morrill says equestrian trails are important as well.
The organization preserves land primarily by using grants to purchase it from landowners – oftentimes the descendents of ranchers who own large swathes of land but don’t have the desire to hang onto it – and then seeing it go into the hands of a government organization, such as the Bureau of Land Management or the California State Parks. “We take ownership initially, then we transfer it,” Morrill says.

With the current economic challenges, the American River Conservancy is extra careful that its land-purchasing grant requests from the government don’t negatively impact the overstretched budgets that have become the norm. Sometimes that land includes rich cultural spots, such as the Wakamatsu Colony – the first Japanese colony in the United States.

In addition to working to preserve the lands along the rivers, the organization provides numerous educational services on-site at its headquarters in Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma. “We have 15 to 20 public programs per month,” Morrill says. “Most of them are free. If there is a fee, it is because materials had to be purchased.” One recent program involved building solar ovens – which the program attendees got to take home. In teaching the public, and especially kids, Morrill says the rivers’ ecosystems and natural states are more likely to be preserved.

And that preservation has a huge impact on life in California. “The 17 rivers coming off the Western Slope provide 60 percent of California’s drinking water,” Morrill says. “Paying attention to the quality of that water is a huge issue.” To accomplish such a gargantuan task, the American River Conservancy relies on a small army of volunteers. “We have a few hundred,” Morrill says. “They work on trails – cleaning them, picking up star thistle, and monitoring birds and water.” Some duties require specialized skills, but the group welcomes all volunteers, who are honored at an annual dinner in the winter, Morrill says. Many of the skills needed are taught in the organization’s programs.

For more information or to get involved, visit