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Paradise saved: 10 newly preserved Western treasures, waiting for you to enjoy them.

Surf crashes against a rocky cove. Hills greened by winter rains roll toward the horizon. The Hearst Ranch, in San Luis Obispo County, California, is surely one of the most beautiful places in the West. And now a portion of it has been preserved for all of us to enjoy. The Hearst property is only one of the newly saved places we honor with this year's Sunset Environmental Awards. Near Las Vegas, a restored wetland offers a lush oasis for waterfowl--and for human visitors too. In Wyoming, Devil's Canyon scores the western slope of the Bighorn Mountains. "For me," says Alex Diekmann of the Trust for Public Land, which helped acquire Devil's Canyon Ranch for public use, "the project was all about the overpowering sense of awe you get when you're up there. It's an incredible feeling." It is an incredible feeling to visit any of our award-winning places. And you can visit most of them right now. Get out your hiking boots, your binoculars, your sense of awe. You're going to have the time of your life.

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CALIFORNIA

Hearst Ranch

For all of William Randolph Hearst's riches, his most lasting treasure is the roughly 82,000-acre ranch that spreads out beneath fabled Hearst Castle along California's Central Coast. Now the ranch is entering a new era, thanks to a historic $95 million deal that the American Land Conservancy and the California Resources Agency worked out with the Hearst Corporation. Under the agreement, the Hearst Corporation will transfer roughly 1,500 acres west of State 1-13 miles of coastline--to the state while establishing conservation easements across an additional 700 coastal acres, including public access to the California Coastal Trail. The agreement also provides protection against development of the 80,000 acres of sprawling ranchlands east of the highway, an area that includes vital wildlife corridors.

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The Hearst Corporation retains the right to develop a boutique luxury hotel and 27 owner homesites across the ranch. Some conservation groups express concerns about environmental monitoring under the deal and about limited public access to 3 prime miles of coastline that the Hearst Corporation will still own, including San Simeon Point. But the deal's backers regard it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to keep the ranch intact and open up new areas to the public.

"It's not everything," says Jeff Stump, vice president of the American Land Conservancy. "But this is a really tremendous deal."

--MATTHEW JAFFE

WHERE: San Luis Obispo County, CA

WHEN: Now

ACCESS: The deal was scheduled to close in January; at press time, the state of California was hoping to immediately open some areas to the public, including Arroyo Laguna Beach, known locally as Windsurfer's Beach, 5 miles north of San Simeon.

INFO: www.hearstcastle.com or 805/927-2020

NEVADA

Las Vegas Wash

Without the wash, there would be no neon in Las Vegas, no lounge acts, no megacasinos. It was, after all, the wash's springs that nurtured the meadows, or las vegas, which offered respite to the region's first travelers. And in the 1950s, a growing Las Vegas turned to the wash to drain urban runoff.

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But what had been a natural rain channel with pockets of wetlands soon became a year-round river that carved a path to Lake Mead. The channel grew deeper and wider, and the wetlands shrank from 2,000 acres in the 1970s to 300 acres by the '90s.

In 1998 the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee was created to manage and enhance the wetlands, and today it oversees the 2,900-acre Clark County Wetlands Park, the heart of which is an urban river that now carries 160 million gallons of water a day. The centerpiece of the park is a 130-acre nature preserve, with trails for hiking, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing: 200 species of birds have been spotted in the park.

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--DAVID C. BECKER

WHERE: About 10 miles southeast of the Las Vegas Strip

WHEN: Now

ACCESS: From Las Vegas Blvd., take Tropicana Ave. east to Broadbent Blvd.; bear left on Wetlands Park Lane (visitor center open 10-4 most days; 7050 Wetlands Park Lane).

INFO: www.lvwash.org or 702/455-7522

CALIFORNIA

Sutter Buttes

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Like a dark and brooding island, the jagged pinnacles of the Sutter Buttes jut from the plains northwest of Sacramento. A cluster of craggy, volcanic peaks towering 2,000-plus feet, the buttes confound geologists, who see in the formation similarities to but no real connection with the Cascade Range to the north.

Misty and green in winter, the buttes have been largely inaccessible, fenced off, mysterious. That's about to change: The state recently bought a 1,900-acre parcel in Peace Valley, in the northern end of the buttes. Dotted with oaks, the valley looks as it did when pioneering families homesteaded it in the late 1800s. Access will be limited, and the park developed sparingly to preserve its timeless feeling. "We've waited more than 75 years to have a park in the Sutter Buttes," says Robert Foster, superintendent of the California State Parks' Northern Buttes District. "We don't even have a name for it yet. It's a bit like being present at the birth of a baby."

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--LORA J. FINNEGAN

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WHERE: 8 miles east of Colusa, CA

WHEN: Now

ACCESS: Currently the new parkland (and other parts of Sutter Buttes) are accessible only by guided hikes run by the nonprofit Middle Mountain Foundation (next hike Mar 12; $35; www.middlemountain.org or 530/671-6116). Buttes hikes will also be part of the Snow Goose Festival (Jan 28-30; free, but reservations required; www.snowgoosefestival.org or 530/345-1865).

INFO: www.parks.ca.gov or 530/538-2200

NEW MEXICO

Taos Valley Overlook

It is one of the South-west's greatest oh-my-god-stop-the-car-now moments: As you drive north on State 68 from Santa Fe to Taos, the road climbs up out of a box canyon and enters a sweeping horseshoe curve. The Taos Valley Overlook opens up before you: a spectacular plain that sprawls out across 2,581 acres, bordered on the far side by the jagged 650-foot-deep Rio Grande Gorge.

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Now the entire uninterrupted vista will stay that way forever.

In spring 2003, the Trust for Public Land purchased the overlook lands from the Klauer family of Dubuque, Iowa, who wanted the view preserved. The Bureau of Land Management will oversee the property as part of its Orilla Verde Recreation Area. A network of hiking trails opens the spectacular landscape to all.

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--JAMES GLAVE

WHERE: 10 miles south of Taos on State 68

WHEN: Now

ACCESS: From Santa Fe, take State 68 about 53 miles north. Just past the village of Pilar, the road climbs steeply and begins a wide curve. Park at the pullout, alongside the picnictable shelters.

INFO: 505/758-8851

WYOMING

Devil's Canyon Ranch

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The 11,179-acre Devil's Canyon Ranch straddles the western slope of Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains, rising from 4,000 to 7,000 feet, with sheer, 1,500-foot-deep Devil's Canyon running through the middle of it. "It's a very special place," says Alex Diekmann, of the Trust for Public Land. Which is why TPL and Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas wanted to acquire the ranch as public property. Now, with $4 million in federal funds, this special place is open to all.

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--PETER FISH

WHERE: 12 miles northeast of Lovell, WY

WHEN: May 1 until winter (depending on snowfall)

ACCESS: From Lovell, the area can be reached via John Blue or Civilian Conservation Corps Roads--both require a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle.

INFO: 307/578-5900

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WASHINGTON

Mountains to Sound Greenway

The idea began in 1990, when Interstate 90 was nearing completion from the Cascade Mountains to Seattle. The Issaquah Alps Trails Club became alarmed that the newly opened corridor would quickly become a strip of office parks and development at every interchange.

Enter the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. Its goal: acquire private lands and piece them together with existing public lands, preserving a 102-mile-long swath of open space.

The plan generated amazingly broad support, among conservation groups and corporations alike.

Now, with only a few detours onto city streets, hikers and bicyclists can follow a trail that runs from Puget Sound's saltwater up and over the crest of the Cascades.--STEVEN R. LORTON

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WHERE: From the Seattle waterfront to Thorp, WA

WHEN: Spring to fall

ACCESS: The easy to moderate 2-mile Rattlesnake Ledges Trail (pictured) is accessible from 1-90 east; take exit 32 and drive 4 miles south to trailhead.

INFO: www.mtsgreenway.org or 206/382-5565

RELATED ARTICLE: More places to celebrate

DEL NORTE COUNTY

Point St. George

Purchased in 2002, this 3-mile stretch of coastline north of Crescent City harbors rare plants and is still one of the state's earliest known Native American settlements. From U.S. 101 in Crescent City, exit west on Fifth St. (which becomes Pebble Beach Dr.), then turn left on Washington Blvd. and follow it to the end; 707/464-7230.

RIVERSIDE COUNTY

Coachella Valley Preserve

Once threatened by development, the nearly 9,000 acres between Coachella Valley Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park have been purchased to preserve a vital wildlife corridor. The new acreage is not officially open yet, but you will experience its benefits when you visit Joshua Tree N.P. or the preserve. www.cnlm.org or 760/343-1234.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY

Cottonwood Creek Park

For years Cottonwood Creek was channeled through a 96-inch pipe. Now it flows naturally again. It's the centerpiece of the 8 1/4-acre park, with newly planted native vegetation and greatly improved water quality for surfers and swimmers at nearby Moonlight State Beach. 95 N. Vulcan Ave., Encinitas; www.ci.encinitas.ca.us or 760/633-2740.

SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON N.P.

Dillonwood Grove

At 1,540 acres, this was once the world's largest privately owned grove of sequoias. Now, thanks to the Save-the-Redwoods League, it's open to everyone as part of Sequoia N.P. Access via Blueridge Rd. and Forest Rd. 19509 (rough dirt road); 559/565-3341.

--LORA J. FINNEGAN, MATTHEW JAFFE, AND LISA TAGGART
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Title Annotation:2005 ENVIRONMENTAL AWARDS
Publication:Sunset
Geographic Code:1U800
Date:Feb 1, 2005
Words:1689
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