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Donner Summit’s 3,000 acres of granite peaks & wildflowers becoming open space

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POSTED August 6, 2012 8:46 p.m.

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TRUCKEE  (AP) — In what is being hailed as a major land acquisition in the Sierra Nevada, conservation groups announced Monday they had reached an agreement to purchase 3,000 acres of granite peaks and wildflower-dotted meadows atop Northern California's Donner Summit.

Under an agreement reached last week with a court-appointed negotiator, three local nonprofits will buy the 3,000-acre Royal Gorge property for $13.5 million. They plan to build trails, take out fences and open up the site to public use, now that a proposed 950-home development on the property has slipped into foreclosure.

"This is the most important conservation acquisition in the Sierra Nevada in a generation," said Tom Mooers, director of the Nevada City-based nonprofit Sierra Watch. "Some people call it the most important square mile in the American West."

The area has long served as a passageway for travelers seeking to cross the craggy peaks, including the ill-fated Donner Party. It also served as a trading hub for the Maidu and Washoe tribes.

The land has old-growth red fir forests, lakes and the lush Van Norden Meadow, which is home to more than 150 species of butterflies, 16 amphibians, 100 birds, plus several endangered species, according to John Cobourn, a hydrologist at University of Nevada-Reno. It is also has the headwaters for three major rivers.

The 7,230-foot-elevation property just south of Interstate 80 had been in private hands for several decades, and was slated for major resort development.

But as the economic climate soured, so did support for development.

The groups have worked with Sugar Bowl, a Sierra ski resort 90 miles east of Sacramento, to take over the Royal Gorge ski area, which has stayed open throughout the negotiations.

The Trust for Public Land, Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Northern Sierra Partnership still need to raise $13.5 million by December 20 to complete the purchase, and will be asking public agencies, foundations, nonprofits and the public for their help.

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