WRC Blog

In Big Sur, a Big Step for Steelhead, Redwoods and the Little Sur River

Jan 2nd, 2020  |  Written by Western Rivers Conservancy

In Big Sur, a Big Step for Steelhead, Redwoods and the Little Sur River
Photo by Doug Steakley

Each fall on the Big Sur coast, steelhead swim from the ocean surf and enter the Little Sur River to spawn beneath some of the southernmost redwood forests in the world. In this majestic and critically important place, Western Rivers Conservancy is partnering with the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County to protect a mile of the Little Sur River and return ancestral lands to the Esselen People.

Part of the Big Sur Stronghold for threatened South-Central California Coast Steelhead, the Little Sur River is one of the most productive steelhead rivers south of the San Francisco Bay. The stream begins in the wilderness of the Santa Lucia Mountains and flows for 25 miles through a deep, redwood-shaded valley before pouring into the Pacific Ocean about 20 miles south of Monterey. Steelhead once returned to the Little Sur by the thousands, but today they number in the hundreds—if that—making protection of the river crucial.

To conserve an important stretch of the Little Sur, along with portions of a key spawning tributary, WRC will buy a near-pristine 1,199-acre ranch in the coming year. Instead of risking the land being developed for private use (the likely outcome if the property remained on the open market), WRC will convey the land to the Esselen Tribe, whose ancestors have lived in the area for thousands of years. The project will mark the first acquisition of indigenous homelands by the tribe, which shares our vision of conserving the Little Sur River and the wildlands around it. 

The ranch’s ridgetop grasslands and giant redwoods are ideal feeding and nesting habitat for California condor, and wildlife biologists predict the land will become part of the expanding range of recovery for this endangered bird. 

Once conserved, the property will link protected Forest Service lands along the coast with the Ventana Wilderness, inland, helping to ensure permanent habitat connectivity from the ocean to the crest of the Santa Lucia Mountains. This will benefit not just steelhead and condor, but endangered marbled murrelet, bald eagle, golden eagle and many other species.

The project received a major boost in October, when WRC and the Esselen Tribe secured a $4.52 million award for the tribe from the California Natural Resources Agency. The funding is provided through Proposition 68, which was created to help protect and enhance California’s natural, cultural, historic, park and community resources.

Directly across the Little Sur River from the property sits Pico Blanco or “Pitchi,” the most sacred coastal site for the Esselen People and the center of their origin story. The Esselen, a state-recognized tribe, intend to share the property’s sensitive cultural and natural resources through docent-led trips for school children and others so that visitors can appreciate both the natural beauty and the indigenous roots of this part of the Big Sur coast. The Big Sur Land Trust is also a project partner and supporter.

We are excited to be working alongside the Esselen Tribe to deliver conservation results that benefit the Little Sur River, the Esselen People, the local community and the fragile fish and wildlife of this unquestionably magical place.