As he raises his arm and points across the Carrizo Plain from the top of Pilitas Mountain, one can picture him as a newly minted ensign standing on the bridge of that WWII mine sweeper 74 years ago. He didn’t have to be on that boat, seasick, shrouded in an Alaska fog so thick you couldn’t see the bow, dressed in clothes meant for Hawaii. As a rancher’s son with a degree in Agricultural Economics from UC Berkeley, Jim Sinton wasn’t drafted. He could have been home with Norma, his young wife who was pregnant with twins.
Because feeding a nation at war was a matter of national security, the draft didn’t apply to farmers and ranchers during WWII. But a comment from a friend as they were riding through the ranch one day weighed heavily on Jim’s mind. One afternoon, as Jim and Norma drove through San Francisco, he spotted a sign that said “Naval Officer Procurement” in a second story window. “I said to my wife, I think I’ll go up there and see what that’s all about. I was in there about an hour and I came out a Naval officer,” Jim said.
Now as Jim stands on the Pilitas Mountain ridge on the Avenales Ranch, pointing out the features of the land, one senses the same sense of duty toward the land and his fellow man that caused him to sign that dotted line many years ago. With eyesight and hearing as sharp as his mind, you would never guess he’s 100 years old.
Jim’s former son-in-law, John Schoettler, wrote the following in a letter to his children, nieces, and nephews:
Over forty years ago I remember your grandfather’s thoughts about the land: “We are but stewards of the land and our stewardship should leave it in better condition than when we found it. It recalls the words of Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world”. Norma and Jim subscribe to this ethic.
The land we are standing on now belongs to Jim’s grandchildren. The Avenales Ranch has been in the family for five generations. But it’s not just the land that passed from generation to generation. Values of duty and stewardship were instilled as well. Jim’s son, Steve Sinton, became a founding member of California Rangeland Trust in 1998 and in 2005 was awarded a national Steward of the Land Award from American Farmland Trust. Steve’s son, Daniel Sinton, currently serves as a California Rangeland Trust director. Over the past 50 years, many UC Cooperative Extension studies were conducted on the ranch and it was the original release site for tule elk by the California Department of Fish and Game (now Department of Fish and Wildlife) over 25 years ago.
Seven years ago, the decision to place a conservation easement on the Avenales Ranch – permanently ensuring the family values that have endured for generations will remain no matter what the future holds – culminated in an application with the California Rangeland Trust. In the spring of 2017, through a partnership with the California Rangeland Trust, The Wildlife Conservation Board and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the easement closed, bringing the total acreage conserved by California Rangeland Trust to over 300,000 acres – a landmark achievement for the largest statewide land trust in California.
Rich grassland dominates the landscape on this home to the headwaters of the Salinas River and Santa Maria River. The 12,482 acre Avenales Ranch is composed of 70 parcels surrounded by the Los Padres National Forest in the foothills of the Coast Range. The Avenales borders the Nick Ranch, conserved by the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County, and the Carrizo Ranch, also conserved by the California Rangeland Trust, bringing the combined protected acreage to over 1.8 million acres in this part of San Luis Obispo County.
This connectivity provides unparalleled breeding, migration, and hunting habitat for many species of wildlife. It is also critical habitat for the California red-legged frog and the California condor. Every year, the ranch draws Sierra Club hikers, riding groups, and hunters (through a private hunting club).
Despite the drastic change in the California landscape Jim has witnessed these past 100 years, the Avenales has largely been unchanged. Thanks to this conservation easement and the Sinton’s legacy of conservation, it will remain the same for the next 100. The preservation of this generational treasure and 300,000 acres conserved forever is cause for celebration as the Rangeland Trust approaches its 20th birthday.