DONNER SUMMIT -- For more than 150 years, waves of change have flowed through the lodgepole pines, glorious meadows and granite outcroppings at Donner Summit in the Sierra Nevada. There were wagon trains, then workers laying track for the transcontinental railroad and more recently vacationers and skiers from around the world.
Now, a landmark deal to protect 3,337 acres here along the crest of the Sierra Nevada range just west of Lake Tahoe ensures little else will disturb the majestic landscape.
In a sale that closed late Thursday, a coalition of environmental groups based in Palo Alto has paid $11.25 million to buy the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort, the site of a recent development battle that highlighted choices for the future of the mountains that naturalist John Muir once called "the Range of Light." The deal ends developers' plans to build hundreds of luxury condominiums, retail stores and hotels.
"This is truly one of the great stories of conservation in the Sierra Nevada in our generation," said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, an environmental group based in Nevada City. "It's a continuation of the legacy that started with the protection of Yosemite in the 19th century and saving Mono Lake in the 20th century. Future generations will appreciate it forever."
Located six miles west of Truckee, the property is the largest cross-country ski resort in North America. But since it opened in 1971, Royal Gorge has remained a low-key destination with about 100 miles of cross-country trails, and none of the heavy development that characterizes many Colorado and Lake Tahoe downhill resorts.
It became a flash point, however, in 2005, when a group of Bay Area developers purchased the land for a reported $35 million. The partnership included Todd and Mark Foster, grandsons of real estate magnate Jack Foster, who filled in a large section of San Francisco Bay wetlands in the early 1960s with 1.4 million truckloads of sand and rock to build Foster City, a community of 30,000 residents today.
The developers announced plans to build 950 housing units, including vacation homes and luxury condominiums, along with retail stores, parking lots and hotels. Residents in the tiny Placer County communities off Interstate 80 pushed back hard.
"It met instant, stiff and vigorous opposition," said Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, an environmental group based in Truckee. "It was completely out of character with the community."
The plans imploded as the economy crashed. The developers defaulted on a $16.7 million loan, and last year, a judge placed the property in receivership. Under Thursday's deal, three conservation groups purchased the property: the Truckee Donner Land Trust, the Trust for Public Land and the Northern Sierra Partnership.
The ski resort will remain open, operated by Sugar Bowl, a nearby ski resort that has been in business since 1939. Through the deal, the property will remain intact, rather than sold off by the bank to developers and land speculators.
"It would have been cut up into 160-acre or 40-acre lots," Norris said. "Donner Summit is still largely intact open space. It has extensive trails. The view is not interrupted by high-rise condominiums and it never will be."
Instead, the property will be upgraded, with new signs and trails. It will be owned eventually by the Truckee Donner Land Trust, and open to the public in the summer free for hiking, mountain biking and horse riding, allowing people to travel along the Pacific Crest Trail, which abuts the land, or venture out through national forests for about 10 miles to the shores of Lake Tahoe.
The land is rich with wildlife -- including black bears, gray foxes, mountain lions and more than 100 species of butterflies. It also serves as the headwaters of the South Yuba River and the upper watershed of the North Fork of the American River.
"If you want to maintain wildlife, you need unbroken corridors," said Roger Bales, director of UC Merced's Sierra Nevada Research Institute. "Whenever there is a housing development going in, you evict the wildlife and break up the wildlife corridors."
Funding for the deal totals $15.5 million. That includes the purchase, transaction costs and upgrades to the land. The money is coming from a variety of sources. Donations by property owners in two nearby communities, Sugar Bowl and Serene Lakes, generated $7 million. Bay Area foundations contributed as well: $1 million from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; $400,000 from the Flora Foundation; $250,000 from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and $250,000 from former Applied Materials CEO Jim Morgan and his wife, Becky, of Los Altos Hills.
The land trusts are pursuing federal and state grants and bond funding for another $5 million or so, and the groups are still seeking donations.
In a wider sense, the deal is the latest example of a movement largely started by the Morgans in 2007 with the goal of preserving 100,000 acres between Lake Tahoe and Mount Lassen for $100 million. The group, a partnership of land trusts known as the Northern Sierra Partnership, has so far preserved more than 20,000 acres since then, raising $87 million.
Most of that land was in outright purchases, but in the years ahead, large deals will buy development rights instead, which can stretch dollars further, said Lucy Blake, president of the partnership. The goal is to fill in century-old "checkerboard" patterns of private and public land left from the railroad grants of the 19th century, and to preserve key wildlife habitat, forests and rangeland, limiting clear cuts and outsize development.
"The Northern Sierra is an area that most Bay Area residents think of as already protected," said Blake, a former a MacArthur genius grant winner. "When you drive up Interstate 80 you see these beautiful landscapes. But there is a very fragmented landscape up there. We're trying to consolidate and protect it while we still have the chance."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN