Stories in California

California Stories

Highlights from our work in the Golden State

A woman wearing waders sits by a wooded stream with a notebook and pencil in her lap and a backpack and other research equipment around her.
Garcia River Forest The Nature Conservancy's Applied Scientist, collecting data at various locations in the Garcia River Forest © Bridget Besaw


Climate Week - September 21, 2020

By Michelle Passero, Director, California Climate Change Program

Today is a good day. The air quality outside my house in the North Bay Area is “moderate,” far below the hazardous levels it was last week. My children can enjoy the outdoors, albeit with their masks on. Checking the air quality and fire risk levels are now a daily routine during the summer and fall months for us in California, a growing anxiety that I never expected when I moved here 25 years ago.  

Today is also the second day of Climate Week, an annual global climate summit held in New York City concurrent with the United Nations General Assembly. (This year it’s virtual.) The wildfires raging in California and across the West punctuate the urgency for accelerating action on climate change, from transportation to energy to the ways we manage and protect our lands.  

To avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, it’s essential to limit global temperature change to no more than a 1.5 °C increase by mid-century, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated in their 2018 Special ReportScientific analysis conducted by The Nature Conservancy and its partners estimate that about one-third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to meet this goal could be achieved through different land conservation, restoration and management strategies. 

While we seek to accelerate efforts to reduce emissions in the built environment, we can’t ignore the ever-growing need to integrate nature-based climate strategies in our fight to protect our health today, as well as our future. During Climate Week, California should seize the opportunity to exercise its climate leadership and elevate the profile of natural climate solutions and the imperative to take immediate action. How we manage, restore, and protect our lands across the rural and urban landscapes influence whether these resources act as a net source or sink of carbon dioxide emissions. California’s leadership can make a difference. The choice is ours, and the time to act is now.

A woman kneels next to her young daughter in front of a green lawn and domed white capitol building.
Erica Brand, Energy Director Erica and her daughter at the California state capitol. © TNC

Power of Place - August 13, 2019

I grew up in rural Northern California near a clean energy power plant where my father worked. My childhood was spent exploring the wilderness and learning about the complex electricity system that powers our world. These two things continue to define my life and livelihood.

As the director of The Nature Conservancy’s California Energy Strategy, I’m focused  on transitioning our state to 100% clean energy while protecting ecologically important lands and waters. The challenge at hand is significant: over the next two decades, California needs to undertake a bold transformation of the economy and the electricity system to tackle climate change, but not at the expense of our natural legacy.

I’m fortunate to be able to contribute to a future with cleaner energy, cleaner air, and a thriving network of wildlands and wildlife for my daughter, and the next generation of Californians, to explore.


Giving Bears, Deer, Mountain Lions Room to Roam: Acquiring Frog Lake and Carpenter Ridge - July 2, 2020

When the railroad first came through the Sierra Nevada in the 1800s, the government divided the forest into a checkerboard of square-mile parcels. Many of these were given to the Union Pacific Railroad Company in exchange for laying track, and ultimately sold off one by one. This long game of checkers split up habitat for generations of wildlife, and TNC and our partners have worked for decades to reconnect the land.

In June of 2020, we had a major win in a series of linked land acquisitions. Through the Northern Sierra Partnership, TNC assisted a local land trust in acquiring the 680-acre Frog Lake property, a spectacular wild landscape nestled in a glaciated bowl below the Sierra Crest. Earlier this spring we helped the partners acquire 2,240 acres of forested lands known as Carpenter Ridge and Red Mountain, a steep ridgeline that insulates the fens and meadows of the protected Carpenter Valley.


A mountain lake with snowy hills behind it.
Frog Lake A spectacular wild landscape nestled in a glaciated bowl below the Sierra Crest. © Robb Hirsch
Angular snowy peaks and forested foothills.
Carpenter Ridge A steep ridgeline that insulates the fens and meadows of the protected Carpenter Valley. © Robb Hirsch
Frog Lake A spectacular wild landscape nestled in a glaciated bowl below the Sierra Crest. © Robb Hirsch
Carpenter Ridge A steep ridgeline that insulates the fens and meadows of the protected Carpenter Valley. © Robb Hirsch

Together, these connected lands provide habitat for imperiled species like the willow flycatcher and the gray wolf, which recently ventured back into California for the first time in a century. The area is home to other wide-ranging mammals like black bears, mountain lions, and mule deer. By protecting the slopes that surround Carpenter Valley, we’re not only conserving essential habitat, we’re securing the health of a watershed that hundreds of thousands of people rely on.

These acquisitions are a major milestone in reconnecting wildlife habitat in the Northern Sierra. The deal also opens once-private property for public recreation, so that people and nature can enjoy this pristine landscape for generations to come. Read about this historic acquisition in The Mercury News.

A stream running through grassy hills.
Nobmann Ranch In March 2020, TNC acquired the 462-acre Nobmann Ranch in the Lassen Foothills. © Cheryl Bretton

Protecting Land and Water in the Lassen Foothills - March 26, 2020

In March 2020, TNC acquired the 462-acre Nobmann Ranch in the Lassen Foothills. This beautiful property abuts our Dye Creek Preserve, connecting habitat for the state’s largest migratory deer herd and protecting Mill Creek, a haven for at-risk species like Chinook salmon and steelhead. Mill Creek has the highest elevation Chinook spawning grounds in North America. Salmon travel more than 300 miles from the ocean to reach their destination near Lassen National Park. Thanks to this acquisition, TNC has become one of the largest holders of water rights in the Mill Creek system. The property comes with an impressive water right of three cubic feet-per-second, the equivalent of three basketballs worth of water going by every second, 24 hours a day.

Mill Creek is fed by the cold, volcanic springs of the Cascade mountain Range, which makes it highly resistant to drought, unlike other rivers that rely on rain and snowmelt. We plan to bolster the health of the Mill Creek system and keep the stream flowing for salmon year-round by using our portfolio of water rights to deliver the water nature needs. With this work we are creating a model that can be replicated across the state to help California’s freshwater species thrive.

Now, the Nobmann property will be managed in conjunction with our Dye Creek Preserve. TNC holds more than 100,000 acres of conservation easements in the region, and this unique property adds a critical piece to the puzzle.


Larry Serpa collecting specimens inside of an emergence tent.

Remembering Larry Serpa: The Work of a Lifetime

This year, TNC lost a conservation legend. Larry Serpa spent 45 years at TNC as an aquatic ecologist, managing natural areas, surveying properties for rare species and leading exemplary and often surprising trips into the field. His fascination for the hard-to-find and overlooked was well known and infectious among his colleagues. Larry’s true passion was freshwater ecosystems, and the insects that support aquatic food chains. He wanted to know “who lives where” and how the populations of these insects differed across habitat types and geography.

Beginning in graduate school, Larry visited streams across California from nearly sea level to elevations over 10,000 feet, collecting specimens, identifying and cataloging his finds. Over time, he built what became the largest individual collection of aquatic insects from our state, numbering over 190,000 specimens. Larry kept his data meticulously, documenting times, locations, and ultimately identifying over 1,500 individual species, including some that were previously thought to be extinct.

Thanks to his wife Lynn Lozier, Larry’s collection has been donated to the California Academy of Sciences. The Academy reports that it is one of the largest collections they’ve ever received, and its addition makes their institution “easily the biggest and best resource for western aquatic collections.” Now, with these data, scientists will be able to track how species have moved and California ecosystems have shifted—critical insights that can help our state adapt to climate change. In spring of 2021, Larry lost a battle with cancer, but he spent his life doing what he loved—walking in the water—uncovering the mysteries of California’s streams.

Conservation in a Hard Hat Protecting Salmon on the Ten Mile River

Conservation in a Hard Hat: Protecting Salmon on the North Coast - January 25, 2019

You might think habitat restoration is a delicate business, but sometimes it involves heavy machinery. Our salmon project on the Ten Mile River employed a full construction crew to bring the river back to its historical meander. TNC’s Dave Wright is leading the restoration, partnering with local ranchers and a local construction company to get the job done. Watch Dave’s time-lapse video to get a front-row seat.

The shape and flow of a river has a big impact on salmon health; young salmon need protected pools and bends to rest and feed while they grow. Over the last century, logging and ranching have reshaped our rivers, and salmon have suffered. Coho salmon have dwindled to about 1% of their historical population. Ten Mile River in Mendocino County is one of California’s last coastal watersheds that can still sustain this fragile species. It’s critical that we step in now to bolster what little habitat remains.

With support from the S. L. Gimbel Foundation and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, we are giving young salmon a head start in life. We’ve built pools, recreated woody debris, and planted willows to keep the water shaded and cool.

With such a diverse group of local partners involved, this project is redefining how restoration is implemented across our rivers and streams. 


Jumping humpback whale
Jumping Humpback Whale A humpback whale breaching off the California coast. © gudkovandrey -

Our Kind of Party: A Science Convening for Saving Whales - October 21, 2020

Earlier this month, TNC and the Ocean Protection Council hosted the West Coast’s largest science convening to prevent whale entanglement. Each year, whales are accidentally caught in marine debris and the gear that fishermen set out in the ocean. This can result in serious injury or even death. 

The science convening was designed to combat the issue on all sides, featuring panel discussions between state and federal fishery managers, fishermen, and presentations from more than 20 researchers from around the U.S.. Presentations highlighted opportunities for greater collaboration, as well as new tools and research to reduce the risk of entanglement in West Coast fisheries. And thanks to its virtual format, the convening safely hosted over 200 attendees. 

The timing of the event was critical. Washington, Oregon and California are all developing entanglement risk management plans that will set the course for improving whale conservation and uphold the fisheries that serve as economic pillars in the three states. Now, informed by findings from the workshop, the Ocean Protection Council is developing a competitive call for over $2 million in public funding to advance research and tools to reduce entanglement-risk across the West Coast.

Map showing a large swath of area off the coast of California that has been protected by TNC.
Conservation Area Closures 150,000 square miles of protected critical seafloor habitat off the west coast. © TNC

Protecting Essential Ocean Habitat - June 4, 2020

Six years of collaborative efforts led by TNC’s California Ocean Program resulted in the protection of 150,000 square miles of critical seafloor habitat off the west coast. That’s nearly the size of the state of California! New regulations protect this habitat which is home to deep-sea coral and sponge formations. Fish populations have recovered to the extent that historically important fishing grounds have been able to reopen.

Protecting ocean habitat isn’t just a goal of environmental organizations; fishing communities also depend on a healthy ocean. But these two groups often find themselves at odds. In 2012, TNC and a coalition of organizations and fishing leaders came together to change that.  

We brought together an extraordinary collaborative with the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and fishing industry professionals of all kinds. The collaborative held over 30 port meetings up and down the West Coast to negotiate a new proposal to the federal government that would enhance habitat protections while saving fishermen’s livelihoods. 

By cross referencing fishermen’s knowledge of the seafloor with new scientific data, we were better able to identify high-value fishing areas and sensitive habitat for protection. The result was a massive win for the ocean and a more sustainable future for West Coast fishing communities. 

By the Numbers: Upgrading Essential Fish Habitat

  • 17,000 new square miles of seafloor fish habitat protected


    New square miles of seafloor fish habitat protected

  • 123,000 new square miles of deep-water habitat protected


    New square miles of deep-water habitat protected

  • •	3,000 square miles of sustainable fishing grounds reopened where fish populations have recovered


    Square miles of sustainable fishing grounds reopened

  • 275,000 square miles of California ocean habitat protected since 2006


    Square miles of CA ocean habitat protected since 2006

View looking up from underwater towards a sea lion sitting on rocks above the surface silhouetted by the sun shining down.
Burst California sea lion framed by kelp beds in Monterey Bay, California. Grand Prize Winner for 2019 TNC Global Photo Contest. © Tyler Schiffman/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Saving Kelp with Satellite Imagery - March 28, 2020

California is in a kelp crisis. In the last few years, California’s North Coast region lost more than 93% of its bull kelp forests. Rising ocean temperatures set off a chain reaction that resulted in massive kelp loss, and now it’s up to us to restore the underwater forests that were once home to our state’s most iconic ocean species. The first step to restoring kelp forests is finding the healthy strongholds that remain.

Enter KelpWatch, an innovative platform that allows users to view changes in kelp dynamics across California over a 30-year period. Built by our TNC technology team in partnership with leading scientists at UCLA and UCSB, KelpWatch hosts recent and historical data on kelp distribution along our coast. Tracking kelp can be a difficult task because kelp abundance can change dramatically over just a few months, so we’re using machine learning and satellite imagery to visualize changes in kelp forest extent over time. As always, our goal is to develop solutions here in California that can scale around the world. With KelpWatch, we’re building the tools to fight global kelp loss, here at home.


A narrow peninsular of land with a strip of beach and dense buildings.
Sea Level Rise Peninsula area in Long Beach, California © TNC

Nature: California’s New Coast Guard - April 8, 2020

The effects of sea-level rise could have a serious impact on our coast. If we do nothing, flooding and erosion will displace whole communities. TNC is working with Long Beach and Silicon Valley—two of our state’s most vulnerable communities—to bring a key player into the fight against sea-level rise: nature.

The San Francisco Bay is the West Coast’s largest estuary, but it has lost over 90% of its historic tidal wetlands. Protecting the Bay’s remaining wetlands is critical to insulating local communities from climate-driven floods and storm events, as well as protecting over 1,000 species. San Mateo County—home to Silicon Valley—is the most at-risk county in the state. TNC is exploring insurance as a tool to protect and restore the San Francisco Bay’s tidal wetlands and marshes. We will map and quantify the storm-surge and flood-risk reduction benefits of marshes and use that information to help insurers develop policies that account for the protection they provide.

In Southern California, Long Beach is already facing flooding, and according to long-term projections, some areas will be permanently under water. TNC is working with the local community to start a conversation about “managed retreat” or safely moving out of harm’s way before a disaster forces a change. We are collaborating with the Aquarium of the Pacific on a series of community dialogues to help Long Beach residents evaluate options for the future. We’ve also partnered with Virtual Planet Technologies to develop the Long Beach Sea Level Rise Explorer, a virtual reality experience that allows users to visualize sea-level rise impacts and potential solutions for Long Beach. 

Notes from the Field

Welcome to Notes from the Field, a video newsletter straight from our TNC scientists that dives into our conservation projects in the field. 
Giant Kangaroo Rat Welcome to Notes from the Field, TNC's video newsletter, handcrafted by our scientists in the field! This month, Scientist Scott Butterfield introduces us to the amazing endangered species of Central California's Carrizo Plain, a protected landscape the size of Los Angeles. Join him.
Blunt-Nosed Leopard Lizard This month, Senior Scientist Scott Butterfield is introducing us to the amazing endangered species of Central California's Carrizo Plain, in a special two-part series. This week, he's back on the plain tracking the elusive blunt nosed leopard lizard using radio monitoring.
Red-legged Frogs Hop to New Habitat This month, Stewardship Manager Susan North takes us on an international journey to reintroduce the red-legged frog to its native habitat in Southern California. join her and our partners in the US and Mexico as they transport bundles of eggs to their new home.
A Salmon Dating Service | Notes from the Field Scientist Jennifer Carah takes us inside a conservation dating service for endangered coho salmon on California’s North Coast. Join her in the river as she and our partners help these fish find that special someone.
Meet Poseidon | Notes from the Field Fisheries Project Director Frank Hurd takes us out on the water in El Manglito, Baja California Sur. A TNC tool called Poseidon is helping this tight-knit fishing community protect marine life and ensure sustainable catch.