(VISALIA, CA) - When land trusts talk about conservation, it is often in terms of acreage, habitats, or policy. But behind every acre of land Sequoia Riverlands Trust protects and every gain for threatened species are professionals who make it happen. This quarter, Currents is featuring one of those highly skilled and committed SRT staffers whose name you may know, but whose work you definitely have appreciated whether at SRT preserves, or in the many farms and ranches that are permanently protected around the San Joaquin Valley and Southern Sierra foothills.
Courtney Barnes, SRT Director of Land Transactions at SRT for the last seven years, conducts all of the acquisitions for our conservation and agricultural land protection work. Her work entails purchasing land for SRT ownership, working with landowners to acquire easements that protect natural resource and agricultural lands, and the myriad of legal issues that follow closing on these transactions. If that sounds like a big job, it is–but it’s about to get bigger.
Come January 1, Courtney will become SRT Director of Land Protection. The new title will reflect added responsibility for managing the annual easement-monitoring program and the database management program necessary to track this work. “Luckily, I will have great experienced staff to support these new responsibilities,” Barnes said. “In addition, I will also be coordinating the land protection planning that helps guide our land protection acquisitions. This will involve looking at broad areas in the southern San Joaquin Valley that SRT should prioritize for conservation and agriculture protection, which helps guide our annual goal setting and subsequently our day-to-day work.”
Perhaps an even taller order is the burgeoning role Barnes will have as SRT’s role expands regionally in the ongoing transition with SGMA, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Currently SGMA is being implemented by local farm agencies throughout the San Joaquin Valley. SRT has been working closely with various local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to shepherd them through this challenging process. “The truly unfortunate part of SGMA is that many farmers may not find it viable to farm anymore and have to sell their farms or repurpose them for other uses,” Barnes said. “SRT–with its long experience working with landowners and farmers in the SJV–can potentially assist farmers with these difficult choices and implement some permanent land protection measures that can provide some economic relief to farmers having to deal with these incredibly difficult choices.”
SGMA’S “flip side of the coin” is that the Valley will still have a tremendous amount of agricultural land in production, and SRT will be actively involved in helping farmers stay in farming by purchasing agricultural protection easements on their farms. “This protects the farms from being used for anything else but farming in the future and puts needed money in their pockets today to help them remain profitable, viable and part of a thriving ag economy in the Valley, Barnes said.
And if acreage of newly protected land isn’t the only measure of conservation’s success, it remains an important one. And on that account, Barnes has overseen quite an expansion during her service to SRT. Since January 2016, SRT has completed 58 projects and conserved 19,046 acres via conservation easements, fee title acquisitions, and oil, gas and mineral rights. That’s a lot, but little time is allowed for resting on laurels given the big challenges Barnes currently handles, like SGMA.
How did she first become interested in conservation/land protection work? What inspires and sustains her to continue in the conservation field? After retiring from over 30 years in the title, escrow and real estate industries Barnes was searching for something for which she could utilize her acquired knowledge. So the Director of Land Transactions position at SRT seemed like a natural fit, and an opportunity to learn new things about land protection.
“Being a small citrus grower myself, and a lover of the outdoors, I am inspired to help farmers and landowners protect the lands that are so important to them,” Barnes said. “I was born in Exeter and raised in Visalia so I have a lifetime of experiences living in the Valley. My family has been growing citrus in Lemon Cove for the last 21 years so we know firsthand what many farmers are having to face on a year-to-year basis, as well as how the SGMA implementation work is, and will be, creating significant added pressures to farmers lives and livelihood<” Barnes said, adding “I want to bring that life experience to my work to help landowners think through what some realistic options might be as SGMA groundwater restrictions become established.”
Like with any company or organization, her seven years at SRT have seen a number of personnel come and go. Some of her new duties belonged to departing Stewardship Director Jeff Powers who has relocated to Northern California. According to Barnes, “I have always been, and continue to be, impressed by the passion and intelligence of all the SRT staff over the years. Working with these conservation professionals has been a true blessing as I have learned the complexities and nuances of conservation protection work. Having this team be a real team, where everyone is trying to do the right thing for conservation, agriculture, and the communities we work in has been a tremendous gift I will always be thankful for.”