Making a special trip to El Dorado County on March 8 was Jim Kenna, the new director of the Bureau of Land Management in California.
He did it as part of a tour he is making throughout the state to become better acquainted with all the lands managed by the BLM.
Kenna started his new position on Sept. 12, 2011. He came to California from Arizona, where he served as BLM state director in 2005. He started his career as a wildland firefighter in Arizona and then went on to hold increasingly more responsible positions for the Department of Interior and BLM in different states, including California. Originally from Denver, Colo., he holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics.
The BLM manages 15.2 million acres of public lands in California—- nearly 15 percent of the state’s land area — and 1.6 million acres in northwestern Nevada.
In El Dorado County the agency manage 20,000 acres. BLM California also administers 47 million acres of subsurface mineral estate underlying federal surface land, 2.5 million acres underlying privately owned land, and 592,000 acres of Native American tribal land where BLM has trust responsibility for mineral operations. Across the country the BLM manages 245 million acres of public lands in 13 states.
On the agenda for the day were extended tours of the Pine Hill Preserve in Cameron Park, the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony project near Coloma, and a recreation site along the South Fork of the American River.
Kenna said those three sites were selected because the preserve demonstrated the value of interagency cooperation between the BLM and other agencies, Wakamatsu because of its historical relevancy, and the American River site because it is one of the most popular recreation areas they manage.
The Pine Hill Preserve is a conservation effort coordinated among 10 different agencies to protect the region’s unique resources. Different entities own patches of land within the preserve, which was established in 2001. The agencies include El Dorado County, Cal Fire, BLM, Bureau of Reclamation, American River Conservancy, California Native Plant Society, El Dorado County Water Agency, El Dorado Irrigation District, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state Department of Fish and Game.
The preserve encompasses 4,790 acres and hosts 740 different plant species that account for 10 percent of California’s native flora including eight rare native plants found predominantly in western El Dorado County.
Because part of the preserve is adjacent to housing developments scattered throughout the hills in Cameron Park, a partnership arrangement has been cultivated between adjacent home owners and preserve agencies. Homeowners have given the BLM and other agencies access to their property in return for ongoing maintenance of the preserve as well as the construction and safeguarding of fire breaks between the preserve and their property.
Recently crews from Americorps and the California Conservation Corp spent six weeks creating fire breaks around the preserve. However their work didn’t start until after all the rare plants in the area had been flagged.
Ironically many of the rarest plants need fire to germinate. So the BLM is having to find other ways to get these plants to propagate.
Kenna said the Pine Hill Preserve is a good demonstration of how the BLM is moving to more community-based preservation that gets the neighbors back into the game.
“It’s a less costly approach and it helps educate people about the work we do,” he said. ”The level of support and engagement by neighbors is great.”
Neighborhood support was much in evidence during the visit because residents adjacent to the preserve were invited to come along for the tour. Others, like Steve Novikoff, showed up spontaneously. His home abuts one part of the preserve where crews had just cut a fire break.
“We really appreciate what you guys are doing out here,” he said. “You did a great job of marking off plants and we appreciate this to no end.”
The next leg of the tour was to the Gold Hill Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony project. The 272-acre site is located near Coloma and was purchased by the American River Conservancy in 2010.
The site has a layered history and has been home to five successive groups. Native Americans lived in the area going back 4,000 years. That ended in 1849 when gold was discovered. A mass immigration of gold seekers to the area drove out the Indians and from 1849 to 1854 mining took over.
Then the ranch began to be used for agriculture and ranching for a short period. In 1869 it was settled by Japanese colonists fleeing a civil war between Tokugawa samurai and rulers in Japan. The samurai introduced traditional Japanese horticulture to California, including silk worm farming along with the cultivation of tea, rice, various fruits and vegetables, paper and oil plants and bamboo products.
As far as historians can determine, Wakamatsu was the first Japanese colony site in North America. It is also the site where the first Japanese woman died and is buried. A young girl named Okei Ito came to the colony at the age of 17 to be a nanny. She died two years later in 1871. Her gravesite has become something of a shrine to the Japanese, said Alan Ehrgott, executive director of the American River Conservancy, and 4,000 to 5,000 people from Japan visit her gravesite every year.
Later the colony was dispersed and for 137 years the Veerkamp family was largely responsible for maintaining the rural nature of the property and preserving its unique heritage.
In 2010 the American River Conservancy purchased the property for $3 million from heirs of the Veerkamps. However the conservancy is interested in selling it to the BLM. Currently Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Tom McClintock are sponsoring legislation in Congress to purchase the property, which would fit in neatly between the Pine Hill Preserve and land owned by the BLM along the South Fork of the American River.
That land constituted the last part of Kenna’s tour. It included a hike on the Gerle Loop Trail on what used to be the Magnolia Ranch, which was purchased by the BLM. The trail accommodates hikers, equestrians and bikers and includes a parking area large enough for those with horse trailers.
The area was included in the tour because the American River is the third busiest river in the country in terms of recreational use. Fees charged also help generate income for the BLM.
Kenna stressed how the tour demonstrated the new model the BLM is employing. In particular its approach to partnering with other agencies to fulfill its mission. His priorities as the new director include sustainability issues, protecting heritage sites, and involving the local community more in the work of the BLM.
“It’s a great honor to return to California as state director during this exciting and challenging time for BLM,” Kenna said. “I look forward to carrying on the good work the bureau has accomplished in this state, and continuing to make progress on our priorities, including the history-making progress on renewable energy projects in the California desert.”