SONORA — From the front porch of their century-old ranch house east of town, Mike and Julie Sardella enjoy the landscape: Their barn and corrals. A statue, mounted atop a loading chute, that depicts Mike's local legend father riding a bucking horse.
They watch deer, bears, coyotes, foxes and mountain lions in their element. The pungent smell of tar weed from the drygrass fields just yards away is unmistakable.
The Sardellas also see a way of life that is waning as many of the old cattle ranches throughout the region are sold off, chopped up into subdivisions including some "ranchettes" less than a mile away or converted into vineyards and orchards.
So, about a dozen years ago, they determined that their ranch will never meet a similar fate. And in July, they finalized a conservation easement with the Sacramento-based California Ranchland Trust, which secured a $520,000 grant from the state's Wildlife Conservation Board.
A big chunk of the money more than $100,000 went to pay for environmental reviews and remapping the 523-acre ranch. The remainder goes to the Sardellas, who continue to own and operate the ranch after surrendering the right to subdivide or develop it. It will remain a ranch forever.
They did this in part because, as did Sardella's father so many years ago, some enterprising cowboy someday will want to own a ranch. The restrictions accompanying the easement make that a possibility.
"How many guys can go into the cattle business if they don't inherit property?" Mike Sardella said. "This way, some young guy can afford to buy some property."
An appraiser determined the ranch value at its highest and best use of the property. A second appraisal determined its value with the conservation easement restrictions, which lower the per-acre value. The grant basically pays the Sardellas the difference between the two.
His parents, Miller and Mary Sardella, leased the Gold Rush-era ranch for years while scrimping and saving to purchase it in 1957.
"They ate lots of beans when they bought it," Mike Sardella said.
Miller Sardella, Tuolumne County's sheriff from 1962 to 1974, was one of the county's most beloved characters and greatest storytellers. How great?
My dad ran a feed store in Sonora. One day, maybe in 1980 or so, I dropped by the store and couldn't believe how many cars were parked alongside the loading dock.
On a 100-pound sack of oats inside, Miller sat telling stories. Among his audience were a couple of Columbia residents and well-known actors. Slim Pickens, a rodeo cowboy turned actor, starred in "Dr. Strange- love" and "Blazing Saddles." And Herschel Bernardi, who starred in the TV shows "Peter Gunn" and "Arnie," later played Tevye on stage in a national touring company of "Fiddler on The Roof." Great storytellers in their own right, Miller simply mesmerized them.
And all of the customers who came in while Miller entertained stayed for the show, which lasted right up until closing time.
Miller died in 1988, about nine years after son Mike took over the ranch on Wards Ferry Road. He continued to run cattle for years before turning that duty over to a younger cowboy.
Julie transforms rescued mustangs into trick-performing pets. One, named Wrangler, will offer his hoof like a handshake. Another, Dude, makes faces on command.
As some other ranches along Wards Ferry Road were sold off, subdivided and developed, the Sardellas in 2001 began looking for a way to make sure theirs never met the same fate. Mike's son from a previous marriage died in 1999. His daughter is married and lives in Washington state.
Continuing the family ranching enterprise beyond Mike and Julie isn't likely, and that sent them looking for an alternative to keep it intact.
"What motivated us," Julie Sardella said, "was riding the ranch and talking about how hard it was for Mike's mom and dad to secure it."
After talking to officials from several conservation trusts, they determined the California Rangeland Trust which holds the easement on the 80,000-acre Hearst Estate best suited their needs and intentions.
"We had no idea how difficult it would be or that there would be any compensation involved," she said.
The Rangeland Trust doesn't seek out potential clients, transaction director Marshall Cook said. Families or their land-use attorneys approach the organization. In fact, he said, it has 95 families owning a total of 425,000 acres on its waiting list. The Trust maintains only one existing easement in Stanislaus County a 3,000-acre cattle ranch whose name or location Cook declined to disclose, citing a confidentiality agreement.
Ranchers seeking the easement must garner support from various sources, including neighbors, Fish and Game, other government agencies and historical organizations. The Sardellas breezed through that part of the process, receiving a blessing even from a developer who subdivided property nearby.
Once the ranch met all of the easement criteria, The Trust's Meredith Kupferman began looking for funding sources, and the Wildlife Conservation Board obliged. Some ranchers opt to donate property to the Trust, receiving tax breaks in return. Others, such as the Sardellas, opt for a purchase agreement in which they retain ownership of the land but give up the right to subdivide or develop it.
By attaching the conservation easement to the deed, any prospective buyer knows the conditions attached to the property.
The Sardellas, meanwhile, know their property will be largely the same long after they are gone. They encourage other ranchers to consider protecting their rangeland as well.
"I like having the peace of mind that it's still going to be a ranch," Mike Sardella said.
And a place where the next owners, too, can sit on the porch and watch the critters. Because the conservation easement can protect more than a ranch.
It also preserves a way of life.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.