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Mountain Magic : Sutter Buttes, World’s Smallest Range, Cast a Spell Over All Comers

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Margit Sands was born virtually in their shadows. Ira Heinrich discovered them as a boy. Walt Anderson was introduced to them as an adult.

Each first encountered the Sutter Buttes at different times in their lives, but like many others they all have come under the mountains’ spell.

Described by the California Almanac as the world’s smallest mountain range, the buttes are a geological oddity--a cluster of volcanic cones jutting 2,000 feet above the broad, flat Sacramento Valley--that has fascinated people from early Wintun Indian shamans to some of the world’s leading volcanologists.

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The buttes, 13 peaks arranged in a circle 10 miles across, also are becoming an popular destination for tourists, even though they are the world’s only privately owned mountain range.

Completely Out of Sight

“There are some areas where you are completely out of sight of the outside world--that is where the buttes work their magic,” said Pete Sands, Margit’s husband and a farm adviser with the University of California Extension Service in Gridley.

He, like Heinrich and others, waxed poetic about the smells, the colors and the sounds of what they see as essentially a nature reserve amid the patchwork sprawl of the valley’s hugely productive farms 35 miles north of Sacramento.

“It’s 75 square miles of quiet upland that has stayed virtually unchanged while all around it has changed so radically and so often,” said Heinrich, a clerk at Chico State University and part-time tour guide.

The buttes rise abruptly from the valley floor, their slopes littered with black rocks of various sizes, volcanic rubble that looks as if it were blasted from the Earth’s mantle last week instead of 2.5 million years ago.

A University of California volcanologist, Howel Williams, was so taken with the buttes that he made them a special study from the time he arrived in California from Liverpool in 1929 until his death in 1982. He and a Berkeley colleague, Garniss H. Curtis, wrote the definitive geologic history of the buttes in 1977.

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Heinrich recalls that when he first saw the buttes as a 10-year-old, “the impact was total.” He paused and added, “I can say without exaggeration that from that time to today, the buttes have been the central focus of my life.”

Heinrich has written his own book on the cultural history of the buttes. It is due out later this year.

In a 1983 book on the Sutter Buttes’ distinctive ecology--they help plants and animals move between the Coast Range and Sierra Nevada mountain ecosystems and serve as a landmark for migrating waterfowl that nest in nearby wetlands--Anderson, an ornithologist, conceded that he was “one of untold numbers of people smitten by the spell of the Sutter Buttes.”

“When I travel around the valley,” he wrote, “I’m surprised by the strong feelings of proprietary nature that so many people feel--even people who have never been in the buttes.”

One reason for this, many local residents think, is that the buttes’ distinction as the most significant topographical feature in the entire 185-mile length of the Sacramento Valley.

Today, the buttes stand out plainly to drivers on Interstate 5; 142 years ago, they were a convenient landmark where U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont marshaled his troops for the Bear Flag Revolt against Mexican rule. For centuries before that, generations of Wintun and Maidu Indians believed them to be the mystical “middle mountain”--a nexus among the three realms, or spiritual plateaus.

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“It was more than just a sacred place among other sacred places” for the Indians, said Heinrich, an amateur anthropologist. “It was the center of the Earth to all those who could see it.”

Spiritual feelings persist for many people today. Hiking an isolated canyon or climbing such colorfully titled summits as “Old Craggy,” “Destiny Peak” or “Potato Hill” seems to put people in touch with the environment.

“Every season has its own personality up there,” said Margit Sands, a rancher and school teacher. “The summer, I think, is more quiet than anything; the quiet coo of the doves means ‘summer’ to me. In winter you have the fog, and in spring, of course, you have the wonderful flowers blooming and trees budding and everything comes alive.”

At the same time, though, fences march up and down slopes, marking the winter ranges of cattle and sheep ranchers; power lines also roam through. Radio transmission towers grow from the highest peak, 2,117-foot South Butte, and gravel is quarried at the lowest elevations.

For many years, property owners kept the buttes to themselves, locking fences around them to protect them from vandals and arsonists. When the state proposed in 1974 to buy the buttes for a state park--they were the No. 1 park priority in that year--local residents defeated the plan with grass-roots politics and a pledge to open the range to limited tours led by naturalists.

Fearful of More Visitors

“I think the private people take better care of it than the state would,” said Shirley Schnabel of Yuba City, whose family keeps about 100 head of cattle and calves in the buttes. Like other local landowners, she fears the impact of park management that would actively encourage more visitors and then build trails and parking lots and refreshment stands.

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There are some concerns that even the limited tours now available--through the Sutter Buttes Naturalists in Chico and West Butte Sanctuary Co. in Davis--may be over-stressing the area.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we’re going to have to start limiting the groups,” Pete Sands agreed, recalling that on one day last spring 200 hikers arrived at Margit’s family’s farm, the ranch deepest into the buttes. “They were coming in Greyhound buses,” he said.

Tour operators have agreed to trim the number of hikers they bring. But no one expects the buttes to lose their attraction.

“The buttes are a fascinating place,” said Randy Schnabel, who with his wife has traveled from Africa to Alaska as an amateur naturalist. “Every time you look up there, you see a little different color or something you have never seen before. It’s like no place else I’ve ever seen.”

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