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Forest Service gets land transfer nod

The U.S. Forest Service took a step closer toward owning and managing a stretch of land near Lyons Reservoir that currently belongs to utility giant PG&E.

The Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council voted Thursday to transfer 628 acres of PG&E land to the Stanislaus National Forest. 

Located around Rushing Meadows, the land proposed for the transfer surrounds the South Fork of the Stanislaus River and is part of the old Sugar Pine Railroad grade northeast of the reservoir. The four parcels in the proposal are surrounded mostly by the Stanislaus National Forest.    

Vanessa Parker-Geisman with the Stewardship Council said after the meeting that the recommendation does not mean the land is immediately turned over to the Forest Service.    

“It’s really up to PG&E and the Forest Service to move forward with the transactional negotiations for the property,” Parker-Geisman said.    

The proposed land transfer is part of a bankruptcy settlement through which PG&E is turning over 140,000 acres of private land around the state for preservation. The Stewardship Council was established as part of the settlement to make sure the land is conserved for the public good and used for outdoor recreation, sustainable forestry, agriculture, habitat protection, open space preservation and/or protection of historic and cultural resources.    

The Forest Service was one of two entities that submitted a proposal, the other was Caltrans.    

Parker-Geisman said the council will be involved in the property negotiations to some extent, and the council will ultimately have to approve a “land conservation and conveyance plan” that includes the transfer.    

If the Stewardship Council approves the plan, it goes back to PG&E and will be up for final approval by the California Public Utilities Commission.    

“There’s several steps involved,” said Parker-Geisman. “I don’t know if we have a specific timeline, but we hope to have a completed transaction as soon as 2013.”    

According to Stewardship Council officials, the Forest Service proposal was chosen because it is best suited to meet the council’s goals for the land. The Forest Service’s proposal includes goals to enhance habitats for wildlife along the river, close and restore trails illegally used by off-highway vehicles and formalize the Sugar Pine Railroad trail.    

In an e-mail to The Union Democrat, Stanislaus National Forest spokesman Jerry Snyder said representatives with the Sierra Club and Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center spoke in favor of the proposal at Thursday’s meeting, as did a rancher who is authorized to graze livestock on the land.    

Snyder stated that the Stanislaus National Forest is “delighted” with the outcome of the meeting.    

“The Stanislaus National Forest believes we have the capacity, the staff and the partners necessary to manage the parcels for protection, preservation and enhancement of the Council’s Beneficial Public Values, and the historic track record to prove it,” he said.    

Should the land transfer move forward, it might not be the last near Lyons Reservoir. The Tuolumne Utilities District is looking at about 20 acres southwest of the lake along the district’s main canal.    

TUD is interested in building a reservoir that would supply customers with water if the district’s main canal failed or if district flumes burned, compromising the it’s water supply. The council is still in talks with TUD over the proposal.

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