Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of City and Regional Planning


City and Regional Planning


Chris Clark


The Upper Salinas Headwaters Conservation Plan is an effort to understand the cultural and ecosystem resources in the region, develop tools for conservation planning, and suggest a strategy and plan of action for implementation of those strategies. The plan covers a 218 square mile area between the Santa Lucia and the La Panza mountain ranges, south of Atascadero and east of the City of San Luis Obispo. The Conservation Area consists of rugged terrain made up of vast-relatively untouched open space. The area consists of several different vegetative communities including oak savannah grasslands, mixed hardwood and oak stands, shrubland, wetland and riparian corridors. The region is host to a number of land uses predominantly agriculture (mainly cattle ranching), some urban development, outdoor recreation, and a few mining operations.

Approximately fifty-five percent of the acreage within the Conservation Area is designated public land (federal, state, and county), while the remaining acreages are dominantly private lands with Rural or Agriculture designations. Places of interest within the Conservation Area include the Upper Salinas River, Santa Margarita Reservoir, the historic Santa Margarita Ranch, and the town of Pozo.

The region that contains the Conservation Area has been identified as having significant ecological resources (migratory corridors, important/rare vegetation communities, and a system of tributaries critical to Salinas River water quality and supply downstream.) The recognition of this important area has come from the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition statewide landscape priorities, The Nature Conservancy, the South Coast Wildlands Program, and a countywide report completed for The Conservancy by Catherine Lambert in 2007, which utilized Geographic information Systems (GIS) to assess ecosystem attributes and growth pressure parameters. The region containing the Conservation Area received a moderate to high combined score as a result of the assessment, suggesting a need for conservation efforts and resources from the Conservancy.

The Conservation Area is based roughly on the shape of the subwatersheds that make up part of the larger Upper Salinas watershed. Several headwater tributaries flow into the Salinas River; a river utilized by several municipalities and agricultural operations as it flows north to Monterey Bay. Land use changes in the region can negatively affect water quality and supply downstream as well as degrade important habitat for fish and wildlife. Projected urban develop pressures from the City of Atascadero and an increase in more intensive agricultural production places increasing pressure on both local ranching operations and the regional ecosystem. The large amount of contiguous public land presents an opportunity for a conservation strategy aimed at creating expansive public-private protected lands that will ensure long-term protection of agricultural, hydrological, and wildlife resources.

This conservation plan was developed primarily using GIS information from The Conservancy and data used with permission from the County of San Luis Obispo. GIS maps were created and utilized along with aerial photos from Google Earth to analyze the landscape for the following:

  • vegetation communities
  • stream flow direction and order
  • types of development
  • land ownership/parcel data
  • agricultural soils
  • geology
  • existing protected areas
  • conservation potential
  • potential project sites for restoration/enhancement

The GIS maps, aerial photo analysis, and information collected from interviews with several family ranchers are intended to be used as decision-support tools for future conservation projects in the region. However, for this plan, strategic and implementation recommendations are suggested in the form of long-term conservation agreements, land use management and restoration/enhancement techniques based on analysis of the information that was collected.

The conservation strategy of this plan emphasizes the utilization of existing protected landscapes, primarily public land, along with the establishment of partnerships with private landowners within the Conservation Area to develop large contiguous tracts of protected land in the headwaters region of the Salinas River. The ranching heritage in the region, diversity of habitat and wildlife, sensitivity of hydrological resources, moderate to high levels of development potential from urban development, and more intensive agricultural production makes the Conservation Area in the Upper Salinas Watershed an essential target for conservation efforts.