Nature Allies: Hipcamp and River Ridge Ranch

“When we started Hipcamp, it was as a way to generate additional income. Now, it’s more like: “Is this a better way to save natural resources?”

In June, 2017, River Ridge Ranch joined Hipcamp.com, a remarkable organization that pairs campers with campsites, but with the twist that many of Hipcamp’s sites are on previously-inaccessible private properties. This partnership inspired some new thoughts about owning and managing private lands for their resource value. Read on.

Just like you, I love the outdoors. And, I’m devoted to land conservation and protection. Why? Because, as Mark Twain said about land: ”they ain’t makin’ it anymore”. And, without it, we all die. And, have way less fun.

My life is intertwined with learning and teaching about sustainable and regenerative land management. The concepts and techniques apply to all lands, public and private, though my emphasis is on the private portion. Where Hipcamp plays an important role, as we’re about to find out.

Some of the best land resources in California, both public and private, are considered ‘grazing lands’ – some estimates put it at 80% of the state’s area. California is right around one hundred million (100,000,000) acres. Where my family lives, in the southern Sierra Nevada, the grazing lands in the foothills also contain the prime oak woodlands, significant plant and animal species diversity and the famous, fabulous rivers that course down from the high country. There are about two million acres like this in the southern Sierra’s middle elevation watersheds. These lands are overwhelmingly privately-owned, and thus vulnerable- actually, threatened, by sale and subdivision into residential use. Frequently, County General Plans encourage development in the foothills, rather than in already-existing towns and cities. Apparently, it’s easier for developers to just bulldoze nature than to work through the complexities of city Planning Departments and it’s lucrative for landowners to sell off.

So, the question for me is how to create a model for private landowners to want to resist, and have the tools to resist, cashing out. Here comes Hipcamp.

Ecosystems are varied, complex, interwoven, resilient entities. I know, because I’ve worked as a wildlife biologist and researcher for all of my adult life. As a private property owner, I want my land, my ecosystem, to mimic nature so that when, inevitably, change occurs, my business and my land survive. That means that the more varied and complex my business, the less vulnerable it is. How do I achieve that? For starters, by having varied and multiple revenue streams. Hipcamp provides that opportunity for willing landowners to form a new source of income with a proven partner that is equally enamored of land, open space, nature and sustainability. And, most Hipcampers, as they are named, are young and are the influencers of the future.

Our land has acted as host for decades, before we purchased it and before Hipcamp was born! But, the guests weren’t people, they were livestock—there long before we purchased River  Ridge’s 722 acres about twenty years ago. We voluntarily placed a Conservation Easement on our land, so that it could never be subdivided. A local land trust holds and monitors the easement we wrote. We gave up the subdivision rights, but we kept all the rights to agricultural, recreational and educational uses. Cattle grazing was the only source of revenue that came with the property and it has kept us going as we struggled to make financial ends meet. It has also been one of the challenges- how to allow cattle to roam without reducing sustainability and, much harder, how to repair past damage while livestock are present. Without boring you about the day-to-day, we have found that grazing livestock is financially pretty much a wash for us. We don’t own or run the grass-fed, grass-finished beef operation, so we don’t make the profits, We get an annual lease fee. And we get to fix all the wrecks! It turns out, we’re not the only ones in this dilemma. A doctoral dissertation from UC Berkeley by Luke McCaulay (1,2) showed that the majority of ranchers in California either lost money or broke even. As McCauley’s work revealed, they mostly did it for their love of the land, the lifestyle, and to keep it around for their descendants.

Hmm, so money’s not the primary motive? Profit, in a way, is not the goal. But, what if one could both keep and improve land and make more money than grazing? Hmm.

River Ridge Institute, a non-profit corporation we formed in 2015, is now asking this question: “What if we took all preconceptions off the table and started over, without grazing. Would this lead to a higher, better use of the land? Would it be sustainable? Would it allow better regeneration?” When we started Hipcamp, it was as a way to generate additional income. Now, it’s more like: “Is this a better way to save natural resources?”

After only 15 months, we’re now generating more gross revenue from Hipcamp hosting than we do with a grazing lease. Huh.

We’re still grazing, but we’ve just given our grazier a year’s notice! Beginning in late Summer 2019, cattle will leave the ranch. And then the fun begins. Or, the pain. The common wisdom, not born out by much scientific research, is that grazing is necessary to prevent a host of negative consequences. For example, the spread of ‘exotic’ introduced plants. Remove cows and the thistles and nettles will take over, goes the hypothesis. Another example is the buildup of ‘thatch’- plant growth that, when unharvested by cattle, will dry, die, fall over and be overlain by the next year’s growth. Do that enough and you’ll have an impenetrable mass of vegetation that will impede wildlife movement, sequester less carbon, reduce water penetration, etc. Is that true?

Well, we intend to find out. We’ve entered into a long term arrangement with the Geography Department at California State University, Long Beach to track these changes, while educating students in the ideas and techniques behind field data collection. They’ve already flown the ranch multiple times, in different seasons, with fixed-wing drones carrying multispectral and high-resolution cameras. Glitzy, huh? The idea is to collect baseline “Now’ information starting

18 months before the withdrawal of cattle grazing and then follow it for years without the cattle, to collect the ‘After’.

On the flip side of the negative consequence hypothesis, is the possibility of positive outcomes. Not spending all one’s income on repairs is one. Leaving more money available for regenerative activities, such as exotic plant control, streambed restoration, wildlife habitat enhancement, and soil erosion repair.

Another is the ability to improve the outdoor experience for lodgers. Gates all open, no cows and bulls to dodge, no cow pies to avoid, less flies.

Another prediction is an increase in wildlife, such as deer. Deer have been documented to avoid feeding and activity when cattle are grazing. More activity, more feeding, more reproduction; will our deer population increase? Will the rest of the wildlife? Will we see a reduction in exotic, pest birds such as European Starling and English House Sparrow, species that compete with our native birds for nesting and food?

What if this works? What if Hipcamp can play a role in spreading our experience to private landowners who now lease their land or run their own cattle, but, who may only do so because that’s what they’ve always done? What if some of those two million acres of oak woodlands and rivers and streams in the southern Sierra Nevada were to become Hipcamp hosts? Could it help to reinvigorate small, rural areas that are as close to pristine as it gets in California these days, but who don’t have many options for sound economies in a rapidly-changing world?

What about the remaining ten million acres of oak woodlands? What about…

Stay tuned. Hmm..

Gary Adest, Owner. River Ridge Ranch, LLC. President, River Ridge Institute. www.riverridgeinstitute.org 

(1) https://lukemacaulay.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/macaulay-2016-role-of-wildlife-associated-recreation-in-private-land-use-conservation.pdf
(2) https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_gtr251/psw_gtr251_257.pdf

View River Ridge Ranch’s Seven Campsites:

Airstream Quercus Cabin

Sycamore Arch Tent Camping

Cottonwood Cabin

Turtle Flat Tent Platform

Cow Cabin

Sierra Foothills Group Camp

Hidden Camp