When Barrick acquired the Squaw Valley ranch in the late 1990s, the ranch was in a sorry state. Irrigation channels were decaying, power lines were down and pastures were overgrazed on the northern Nevada ranch. Willow Creek, which forks through the ranch, lacked vegetative cover and aquatic life.
“There wasn’t a secure, clean, palatable water system on the ranch,” recalls Gregg Simonds, who oversees management of the Squaw Valley ranch through his company, Open Range Consulting.
Barrick purchased the 370,000-acre ranch to secure additional water rights for its nearby mining operations, but it soon became clear that there was an opportunity to rehabilitate Squaw Valley and make a positive mark on the environment.
Simonds developed a plan to restore irrigation channels and reseed vegetation. This involved the use of satellite imagery coupled with environmental testing and monitoring to evaluate the land and determine how best to restore it. This painstaking process lasted more than 10 years.
Because of the environmental improvements at the ranch, it’s now home to a variety of rangeland creatures and migratory birds. Water fowl, ducks, coyotes, mule deer and sage-grouse all reside on ranch grounds.
As Simonds began to reseed vegetation, he continued to rely on satellite imagery to measure vegetation improvements in different areas of the ranch. As vegetation returned, he noted that the soil captured more snowmelt and that the amount of water in Willow Creek increased. The new vegetation also provided shade cover for Willow Creek and produced more oxygen in the creek’s waters, allowing the creek to support a greater diversity of aquatic life.
“If you go there now, in some of these areas of the creek, it’s like an oasis,” says Orson Tingey, Barrick’s Senior Land Manager in Nevada.
When the ranch was ready for cattle-grazing, Simonds developed a grazing cycle to eliminate over-grazing. The cycle ensures that each area of the ranch is grazed only once a year, if at all, which allows the land to recover from the grazing activities. In addition, Barrick only grazes half of the cattle that it’s entitled to under its permit from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), further enhancing the land’s ability to recover.
Each year, Simonds signs contracts with other cattle operations to bring 4,000–5,000 young cows to Squaw Valley to graze from spring to fall. In addition, he keeps 200–400 cows on site permanently. Those cows are moved to lower elevations during the winter, obviating the need to produce hay for them on the ranch to survive the winter. Simonds says these activities “build resiliency into the landscape,” similar to the way people who work out regularly improve their ability to recover from sickness or injury.
“A person’s ability to withstand, repel or come back from an illness or an injury is related to the shape they’re in when the illness or injury happens,” he says. “This goes back to Ben Franklin’s saying, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ ”
Still, even the fittest individuals sometimes suffer setbacks, and the rehabilitation of Squaw Valley has had setbacks as well. For example, in the early 2000s, a series of wildfires hit the ranch and surrounding areas, destroying tens of thousands of acres of land along Willow Creek. The fires also caused affected lands to erode and large amounts of silt accumulated in the creek’s waters. The BLM responded by restricting grazing in these areas to allow the land to recover.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nevada Department of Wildlife asked for Barrick’s help to reverse damage done to the creek from these wildfires and conserve vulnerable native Lahontan Cutthroat Trout populations. The company agreed and, together with Open Range Consultants, implemented a reseeding and grazing effort in the fire-impacted areas of the ranch to control erosion and reduce silt. The land ultimately recovered and the trout population in Willow Creek rebounded.
While subsequent wildfires have set the trout recovery back every so often, the ranch rehabilitation program has drawn support from various state and non-governmental organizations such as the BLM and Trout Unlimited. Each agency brings a different view and expertise to the project, Tingey says.
Because of the environmental improvements at the ranch, it’s now home to a variety of rangeland creatures and migratory birds. Water fowl, ducks, coyotes, mule deer and sage-grouse all reside on ranch grounds. As a result of the ranch’s sustainability efforts, the beef produced has been certified by the Country Natural Beef Co-Op and attained the Food Alliance Certification Seal. That means the ranch can sell its meat to specialty consumer markets such as Whole Foods.
“Barrick has worked very, very hard at Squaw Valley to benefit the environment and support wildlife,” says Bob Brock, Barrick’s Regional Land Manager for North America. “So we’re reaping the benefits from managing the land and the cattle right.”