Statement from The Nature Conservancy on Shasta Big Springs Ranch

San Francisco, CA

Mike Sweeney, Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy California Chapter on TNC’s work at Shasta Big Springs Ranch:

“In 2005 and 2009, The Nature Conservancy purchased the land that would become Shasta Big Springs Ranch for $17 million in order to protect, conserve and restore critical salmon habitat. At the time, salmon populations in the region had dwindled--particularly threatened and endangered coho salmon. The river on the Shasta Big Springs Ranch property is a breeding ground for Chinook and coho salmon, so its protection and restoration was essential.

The location of Shasta Big Springs Ranch and its access to nutrient-rich cold spring water provides critical habitat for Fall Chinook and the endangered and threatened coho salmon, making protection and restoration of the ranch’s waterways essential for these populations.

The salmon populations here face a number of challenges ranging from warm river temperatures to reduced streamflows. Shasta Big Springs Ranch under The Nature Conservancy’s stewardship became a living laboratory demonstrating that through science and partnership cattle ranching and salmon can thrive side by side — an experiment well documented by studies on both the Shasta River and Big Springs Creek.

The Nature Conservancy and partners restored 10 miles of river, planted 6,000 native riparian trees, invested in over 60 scientific research projects and implemented new practices developed to improve salmon habitat by decreasing water temperatures and increasing stream flows, all while running an active cattle ranch. We hosted hundreds of schoolchildren and members of the community at events designed to share firsthand the wonder of salmon returning to their natal spawning grounds. And to share this incredible natural phenomenon with people far beyond the local community, we installed an underwater camera during spawning season that enabled the public to watch 30,000 Chinook return to the river, a record in recent years. 

TNC acquired both ranches at fair market value. As a non-profit, TNC is strategic in how we fund purchases across our conservation efforts, stretching the impact of our dollars using public conservation funding to complement our private resources. Though that was the plan here, as the purchase neared close, public funding disappeared temporarily due to the Great Recession. Given its importance to salmon in this region and the unlikelihood we would ever get this chance again, TNC went “all-in” and purchased the property in-full knowing we would need to find a means to recoup those funds through public conservation funding in the future. 

When the State of California was again able to fund conservation programs through the sale of bonds, TNC entered into a conservation easement with the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) as a means to recoup some of these funds so we could apply them to other important conservation priorities across the state. Terms of this conservation easement allowed CDFW the sole discretion after five years to decide how water rights on the property were to be managed and gave the State the first right of refusal to purchase the property in the event of a future sale. Per the conservation easement CDFW assumed control of water rights in 2015, and subsequently elected to limit irrigation to one part of Shasta Big Springs Ranch.

With our restoration work completed and having done what we came there to do — protect this important salmon run, restore salmon habitat, and prove out methods by which salmon and ranching can successfully coexist — our research had drawn to a close. TNC decided to sell the ranch and focus on other initiatives in the watershed aimed at scaling what we’d learned there and broadening our reach to work with other agricultural partners to reduce conflicts between salmon and ranching. Per the terms of the original agreement, CDFW elected to exercise its right to purchase. We are heartened that the protections put in place through the project ensure the ongoing conservation and protection of salmon at this critical location under the future stewardship of CDFW. And we are proud that during our tenure at the ranch we were able to demonstrate practical and science-based approaches showing how these landscapes can work for both ranching and salmon — practices that can be replicated by ranchers throughout the watershed. 

The innovative work we have done at Shasta Big Springs Ranch has established the foundational science for fish-friendly ranching, which continues to inform conservation projects and strategies we are developing in partnership with farmers and ranchers across the state with the goal of meeting the needs of both nature and people.” 

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.