What do rolling oak woodlands, vernal pools, steep grasslands, vast marshes and spring wild flowers have in common? These are all part of Solano County’s diverse landscape. In the past twenty-five years, the Solano Land Trust has protected over 20,000 acres of such habitats. Founded as a result of litigation between open space advocates, land developers and a municipal government, this organization has a unique take on land use issues. According to current executive director Nicole Byrd, the board of directors encompasses developer and business perspectives, the smart growth community, the Green Valley Landowners Association, farmers and habitat restoration specialists. Their goal is to permanently protect farmland and open space in Solano County, using innovative and non-confrontational techniques; and perhaps even more importantly, to connect the community with that land.

When times are tough, it can mean sink or swim for organizations that rely on state funding. Byrd says funding has been one of the greatest challenges for the Land Trust in recent years, but maintains a positive outlook, stating that an economic downturn is a great time for an organization to become introspective and examine its internal structure, as well as diversify fundraising means. Also, as people are really looking at how to save money and stay close to home, exploring the land in our own backyard becomes a great option.

Protected lands range from just north of Vallejo to east of Fairfield and Vacaville and most are available either through docent–led tours or public access. Rush Ranch, located in Suisun marshland, covers more than two thousand acres and is home to about 230 species of birds alone. Native Americans of the Patwin tribes inhabited the area around the ranch, seasonally, for thousands of years before the Spanish and European takeovers. For most of the last century the land was owned by the Rush family, who made no changes to the tidal marshlands on the property, which has allowed for important scientific contributions to their study and the protection of local species.

Rush Ranch is available for hiking, picnics, fishing, meetings rentals, overnight stays, events and weddings. It’s home to two volunteer groups–the Rush Ranch Education Council brings thousands of second and third graders out each year to experience the blacksmith shop, learn about the history of the Ranch, and have a chance to connect with the land. Access Adventure, directed by John Muir’s grandson Michael, is responsible for getting folks with mobility challenges to the marshland, and uses wheelchair accessible horse-drawn carriages to provide a unique wilderness experience. Rush Ranch is open to the public from 8am to sundown, seven days a week.

Lynch Canyon and the Jepson Prairie Preserve are also open to the public. Lynch Canyon creates a buffer zone between Vallejo and Fairfield and is full of sweeping views and oak woodlands. It’s currently open weekends and is home to the annual Lynch Valley trail run each June. This rigorous 10k run isn’t for the faint of heart, but is held in tandem with a free community hike, open to the whole family. The Jepson Prairie Preserve is one of the few vernal pool preserves left in California. Vernal pools are special habitats home to rare species that dry up in the summer, making one of the highlights of this preserve and its ever-changing environment. The largest ‘pool’ is ninety-three acre Olcott Lake, which is home to fifteen rare or endangered species, including the vernal pool fairy shrimp and the California tiger salamander. Springtime is host to vibrant and spectacular wildflower displays.

The King-Swett Ranches are particularly special, explains Byrd, because “we can all see these hills from the freeway, but most folks don’t realize that you can actually get in there and explore. The fact that they are currently only accessible by docents makes them even more special to me because you know that your visit is a unique opportunity.” The King-Swett Ranches are the closest preserves to Benicia, stretching across 4000 acres between Blue Rock Springs and the 680 freeway. The primary docent, Jim Walsh, “shares his love and knowledge of these ranches to all who visit, and he brings the natural and cultural history of the ranches to life.” It’s a goal of the organization to purchase more property around Lake Herman, and connect trails to the Bay Trail and the Bay Area Ridge Trail.

Other long-term goals include focusing on high value agricultural land, working harder to support the farming community, and finding more ways to get local kids out to the land. Byrd says they are currently working with UC Davis business school interns who are conducting market research and putting together a survey to help target community outreach, find out what people think of how the organization has performed, and draw folks into the planning process. Ultimately, according to Byrd, they want “the whole community to feel like the land we own is their land.”

This 25th Anniversary year is busy for Solano Land Trust, with a slew of events geared towards diverse areas of the community. Upcoming events include the Kite Festival at Lynch Canyon, April 23, the Rush Ranch Open House, April 30, the Farm Fresh Feast, May 21, and the Aim for Ag and Open Space, Sporting Clay Shoot & Luncheon, on August 20. Staff and volunteers are working hard to ensure the success of these events. The goal this year is 250 new members, which is lofty, but Byrd is confident in their success. In celebration of twenty-five successful years, the Land Trust is offering a special rate of $25 to join. Membership fees are tax-deductible and include the Vistas Newsletter, invitations to special events, and the knowledge that you are helping protect working farms and natural areas in your county.
The Solano Land Trust has a new and comprehensive website, www.solanolandtrust.org, where you can find information about the land, the history of the organization, upcoming events and more. Visit the preserves his month to catch brilliant and vivid wildflower displays.