Once a winter-run creek, the Lange family returned the Gil Creek riparian area back to its native state. Before their restoration efforts, which began 12 years ago, only two oak trees were growing in the back center of the lake.
The Lange family’s River Ranch, planted to Zinfandel wine grapes in the 1940s, was a little boy’s dream. With more than a mile of riverfront property, it offered fishing, exploring, hunting, wildlife, and other adventures that captivate children. But years of farming and cattle grazing had reduced the riparian area to grasses and weeds, and much of the wildlife had disappeared.
"As kids, we lived at the river," Brad Lange said, adding that both he and his brother Randy built their homes and farming headquarters on the 220-acre parcel. "It was our own paradise."
The twin fourth-generation farmers were born in Lodi, California. Their first experience in conservation and watershed restoration occurred about a dozen years ago as a family project. Gil Creek, a winter-run creek or slough of the Mokelumne River, ran through their property. Years of cattle grazing had eliminated all but two oak trees along the native riparian area.
The twins—considered ahead of their time by some—decided to restore some of the area to its former habitat with their own money, turning it into a 28-feet deep lake. They reinforced the lake’s sides with old concrete pipe chunks, planted quail brush, buckwheat, wild rose, oak trees, elderberry bush, and other native species, and dropped concrete pipe in the lake for fish hiding places. The lake was stocked with bass and sunfish for "catch and release." Wood duck, bat, and owl boxes or "condos" were hung on trees to provide nesting sites. Drip lines were put in to help water the young trees, and bushes and noxious weeds were sprayed out. Slowly, volunteer willows and cottonwoods took root as the banks grew more inviting, and wildlife returned.
Aaron Lange, Randy’s son, was a teenager when the project began. "As a kid, I didn’t understand why we were doing it. I saw it as work," he said, adding that he helped water the plants in the early years of establishment and helped put up countless bird boxes.
The lake and riparian area now teems with wild turkey, deer, ducks, geese, and other wildlife. Up to 80 wood duck chicks have been counted as they launch into the water.
The Gil Creek project propelled Brad and Randy into tackling a bigger and more significant watershed effort—restoring more than a mile of the riparian area of their River Ranch farmland that borders the Mokelumne River. The land is significant because it is home to the long-horned elderberry beetle and the beetle’s habitat, the elderberry bush, both endangered species.
Before beginning habitat restoration, the twins wanted a Safe Harbor Agreement with state and federal officials to protect their farming activities that could otherwise be in danger of violating the endangered species "take" law.
Brad worked for two years with diverse stakeholders involved in the agreement, including state and federal water, conservation, fish, and wildlife regulators, environmental groups, and water municipalities. Government officials wanted the twins to stop farming a strip of land as a buffer as part of the agreement; Brad said no. In 2006, he signed the first programmatic Safe Harbor agreement in California. Programmatic agreements cover a specific area versus a single property.
"The agreement was important because we wanted adjacent landowners to be protected even if they were not involved in restoration," Brad explained. "The idea was to encourage other landowners along the river to voluntarily restore the watershed on their property." Without the Safe Harbor agreement and regulatory assurances, a farmer could be held liable for "taking" the endangered species if an elderberry bush or beetle was damaged from farming practices, he added.
"Our vines were within 35 feet of the levee where the elderberry bushes grow," he said. "We weren’t going to give up farming the end of our rows. Without profitability in farming, restoration doesn’t make economic sense."
Since the agreement, the Langes have planted 400 elderberry bushes and other native bushes and trees, installed drip lines for watering, and encouraged bird and bat habitat through a grant from the CALFED Bay Delta Program and the San Joaquin Resource Conservation District. CALFED is a collaboration of state and federal agencies working to improve the water supplies and quality of the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
"To do the same mile-and-a-half stretch of restoration by ourselves would have cost us $200,000," Brad said. The restored area includes six acres of old vineyard in the river bottomland prone to flooding. Instead of burning the removed vines, they were left in piles for songbird habitat.
"My father would be rolling in his grave," Brad said during a recent tour by Good Fruit Grower of the restored watershed. "Every year, he would mow all this where the elderberry bushes now have been planted."
For their sustainable viticulture practices and habitat enhancement and restoration, Brad and Randy received the first-ever Leopold Conservation Award and $10,000 from the California Farm Bureau Federation last year. The brothers used two-thirds of the money to support a high school delta-slough education program and provide funding to a bird observatory group to continue songbird studies.