Faces of Conservation in the Central Valley

By Julie Rentner, Executive Vice President, Science & Development

River Partners was founded in the spirit of collaboration and teamwork. It is right there in our name. As we embark on a new project, we do it with an understanding that our partners and neighbors are going to bring new ideas and perspectives that we had never considered before, and our completed projects will reflect their voices as much as ours. Through implementation of dozens of large-scale restoration projects across 14 watersheds, we’ve learned that the single most important project component is not the exactly perfect planting plan or sticking 100% to the project schedule, it is respect for different perspectives.

We are happy to introduce some of the partners who are enriching our work restoring precious habitat in the Central Valley.

Feliciano Degante
Field Foreman, River Partners

Riparian forest planted by Feliciano’s team at Dos Rios Ranch. Photo by James Scott.
Feliciano at Dos Rios

Early one morning, Feliciano parked his tractor on the banks of the San Joaquin River. He was enjoying his coffee break beside the peaceful lazy river when suddenly he heard an unfamiliar noise. It was not an engine noise, but it was growing louder and louder. He thought “Is this an earthquake?” as the sound grew more menacing. Something was coming, but what was it? Then he saw it. An enormous flock of ducks diving into the river to feed. Maybe hundreds. The water looked alive. “This should be on National Geographic!” Says Feliciano. “How amazing that I get to see things in this job that very few others get to, and I don’t have to sit in an office all day.”

On his first day of work, Feliciano was asked to meet with his supervisor at five in the morning to make the drive to Chico to start his training with the River Partners field crew. He overslept. When his supervisor called him, Feliciano thought his new job was over before it began. Instead, River Partners’ Director of Operations asked him where his house was, and agreed to drive over and pick him up. That’s when he knew that this organization would be a special place to work.

Growing up on a ranch in Mexico, where being outdoors and enjoying the rhythm of the seasons was the norm, Feliciano has loved the outdoors all his life. He joined the California Conservation Corps in Yosemite National Park where he worked on the Merced River that meanders through the valley floor. The importance of working with nature to connect people with ecology was apparent every day. Now a father of three, Feliciano lives right near the San Joaquin River and one of River Partners’ largest projects. He leads crews of Corps members, restores hundreds of acres of riparian forests each year, and teaches his kids to love the outdoors as much as he does.

“What I love about River Partners is that not only do I get to spend every day outside, transforming the landscape to support incredible wildlife populations, but the people I work with are supportive. It feels like a family. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

Derrick Hansing
Assistant Field Manager, River Partners

One of Derrick’s large contributions to River Partners work is coordinating and overseeing large-scale weed removal at the Oroville Wildlife Area. Here, a large pile of giant reed (Arundo donax) waits for removal from the site.
Derrick’s recreational interests dovetail beautifully with River Partners mission and work – here, Derrick shows off a salmon caught in the Sacramento River in 2017.

Derrick introduced himself to River Partners with a cover letter identifying his enthusiasm for crop consulting in the Sacramento Valley. His resume listed as many ag-related positions as conservation interests: duck club management, experiments in soil conservation and crop yield, native plant identification and weed control, and precision irrigation consulting to name a few. Derrick was hired by River Partners in 2016 and has since been responsible for managing and implementing some of our largest floodplain projects to date. Derrick also works closely with our science staff team to translate restoration plans into on-the-ground results.

“I grew up in Chico and fishing and hunting has always been a part of my life,” Derrick shared. “Before I knew what conservation meant, as a kid I took part in Ducks Unlimited Greenwing programs. I banded birds and built boxes for wood ducks, not even realizing that I was helping to enhance waterfowl habitat and populations. River Partners is creating habitat for all kinds of wildlife. The riparian habitat we create is exactly what deer need to boost their herd populations, and I love hunting deer. The work we do also protects the river banks and gravel runs during flood events, which are very important for salmon and steelhead.

“In the future, I would like my work at River Partners to help rescue our local salmon and steelhead populations. The Sacramento River had large runs of salmon and steelhead year after year and now those numbers are scary low. It’s great to know that I’m working with an organization that is leading the way in habitat conservation.”

Carolyn Belli
President, Kern River Corridor Endowment & Holding Company

Panorama Vista Preserve. Photo by Gia Murillo.

I met Carolyn in 2009 when she rolled up to a field visit in her tan Cadillac, wearing big dark sunglasses with her hair perfectly coiffed. It was over 100 degrees in Bakersfield, and she was the picture of cool. She is leading the management of one of California’s largest urban riverside nature preserves, and her vision is clear: allow people (especially children) to enjoy the river’s natural beauty.

Carolyn Belli, “That was my Arabian mare, Silver Lining, who first showed me the land below the bluffs, now PVP.”

For more than eight years, Carolyn has been guiding River Partners and others to restore native habitats and provide outdoor education opportunities at Panorama Vista Preserve (or PVP for short) while the preserve is open to the public and actively producing oil. Drawing from a career in politics, Carolyn understands how to work with people.

Carolyn started enjoying the river on horseback. An avid rider from her youth in northern California, Carolyn and her husband Joe raised their family in the neighborhood above the Panorama Bluffs in Bakersfield. This meant Carolyn’s nearest riding opportunity was the Kern River Parkway, 30 miles of riverside parkway developed through a collaboration between the City of Bakersfield and Kern County. She joined the Kern Equestrians for the Preservation of Trails (KEPT) to support efforts to connect the entire Parkway and keep it open for horse-back riders.

When word spread that several riverside parcels totaling more than 900 acres were up for sale, KEPT, the Kern River Parkway Foundation and Kern River Public Access Committee teamed up to buy and permanently protect what would become PVP.

Today, PVP is a 936-acre preserve open to the public hosting over 15 miles of public trails and over 200 acres of restored and remnant riparian forests.

Carolyn says “After acquiring the land, I thought our work was over; then I met Julie Rentner with River Partners and soon her vision of habitat restoration also became my vision. We have had a very good relationship with River Partners and will depend on them for future restoration on the Preserve.”

“I love the peace and beauty of the Panorama Vista Preserve and want others to experience the same,” Carolyn says. “We should all be concerned about preserving our rivers and the riparian forests along them for public use today and for future generations.“

The above article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the River Partners Journal.