DONNER SUMMIT, Calif. — For a group of regional conservationists, what began as a fight against a perceived irresponsible development has evolved into an opportunity to conserve one of the most iconic areas of the American West.
Royal Gorge, the 2,900 acre-plot on Donner Summit that features one of the largest cross-country ski areas in North America, is currently available to purchase for $24 million.
Included in the purchase price is an additional 300 acres in the Negro Canyon area and Rainbow Lodge, which includes additional property that features a natural mountain spring and hiking trails, according to published reports.
The previous owner of the property, Kirk Syme, bought the property in 2005 with the intention of developing a large portion into a 950-unit subdivision. Syme’s default on $16.7 million loan in June of 2011 and subsequent court actions essentially ended the development bid.
Thus, a local consortium of conservation entities are banding together in an effort to raise enough money to buy the property with an eye toward permanently conserving it from development.
“In my line of work, this property has every attribute you could want in a conservation project,” said Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, one of the organizations leading the fundraising effort. “It’s important biologically and it’s important for recreation.”
Along with acting as one of the preeminent cross-country ski areas, the Van Norden Meadows area is a crucial alpine habitat home to 100 species of birds, 20 species of mammals and 115 species of butterflies, Norris said.
Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch — which has followed the Royal Gorge issue closely for the past several years — also noted the historical import of the region.
“The Donner Summit area is one of the most iconic areas of the American West,” he said. “You have the Pacific Crest, the Transcontinental Railway, a native American trade route — it’s just a really incredible place.”
While some might balk at the price tag as being far out of the range of nonprofits reliant on donations from private industry, Mooers said such an effort is not without precedence.
In 2007, the Truckee Donner Land Trust closed a $23.5 million real estate transaction on Waddle Ranch, a 1,462-acre former cattle ranch north of Highway 267.
“I think over the course of time, it will become apparent that we are the most logical, the most likely and the strongest potential buyer,” Norris said.
Mooers said that the same problems that hounded the first development group — such as a lack of road, sewage and water infrastructure capable of sustaining large commercial development — will continue to deter potential buyers, but said that should not make conservationists complacent.
“We had a very smart and competent developer spend five or six years trying to move development forward and didn’t move one inch toward the goal line,” he said.
The lack of contiguity — the property is broken up by the Serene Lakes development — also prevents it from being an ideal spot for a super rich individual to develop as a private ranch, Norris said.
Royal Gorge was previously owned by Syme, owner of Woodstock Development headquarted in the San Francisco Bay Area, who brought the property in 2005 for about $35 million, according to published reports.
The property, which is situated predominantly in Placer County but encroaches into Nevada County, was set to house a 950-unit subdivision.
Syme borrowed about $17 million of the purchase price and subsequently defaulted on the loan, which is currently held by Armed Forces Bank, in June of 2011.
Armed Forces Bank appointed a receivership — Douglas Wilson Companies of San Diego — in September of last year.
Douglas Wilson’s main responsibility is to continue to operate the ski resort and the Rainbow Lodge as to preserve the asset, said Alan Scott. Scott said a general manager for Royal Gorge Ski Resort is in place and there are plans to open if the weather cooperates.
“We’re keeping it viable until the lender and the borrower can resolve the issue,” Scott said.
A post on Douglas Wilson’s website states the goal is to “sell and close the sale of the property at a healthy value sometime mid-2012 or sooner.”