The Sutter Buttes, a unique cluster of volcanoes isolated in the midst of the Sacramento Valley, was the sacred “Middle Mountain” of the valley Indian tribes. The Middle Mountain Foundation (MMF), a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, was formed in 1989 as an outgrowth of Sutter Buttes Naturalists, originally founded by Walt and Rebecca Anderson. The articles of incorporation stated that the specific purposes of the foundation were to “educate the general public in the relevance and importance to society of natural and cultural resources and to encourage preservation, understanding, and good stewardship of such resources.” The Sutter Buttes formed the actual foundation of such education and preservation efforts.

The philosophy of the organization stressed developing a strong sense of place, finding a way for the public interest and private land to converge for the benefit of all. The organization has always favored inclusiveness, bringing together private landowners with scientists, educators, students, families, artists, and other citizens. The common ground is the Sutter Buttes itself, a landscape of exceptional natural and cultural values.

Through contractual agreements with landowners, MMF has created learning opportunities within the Sutter Buttes for thousands of people, typically as guided hikes for the public or as school class outings. Carefully controlled access allows visitors to have high quality experiences while protecting the land itself. MMF board members also engage in outreach, spreading the message of this special place to those who have not yet visited the interior of the range.

MMF currently works collaboratively with numerous entities, including local (Colusa, Yuba and Sutter Counties), California (State Parks and Fish and Game), Regional (e.g., Great Valley Center), and National Land Trusts (e.g., Land Trust Alliance, Nature Conservancy). MMF believes that land protection easements, which compensate the landowner for development rights and allow them to continue current life styles on the land, are a fundamental tool for protecting the private lands in the Buttes, but it also considers other land protection options. As a land trust, MMF owns some land in the Buttes and can receive gifts of land from willing donors.

With strong leadership, a professional board, experienced advisors, an Executive Director, part-time staff, talented hike guides, and dedicated volunteers, Middle Mountain Foundation continues to pursue the mission under which it was founded. Walt Anderson’s book, Inland Island: the Sutter Buttes, is a co-publishing venture that we believe enhances our mission. We invite all those interested in the future of this great place to join with us in our education and land protection ventures.

Mission and Values

Mission Statement

The Middle Mountain Foundation works to protect the land and natural resources of the Sutter Buttes and the surrounding region for present and future generations.


  • Protect the natural, cultural, geological, historical, and scenic qualities of the Sutter Buttes.
  • Identify prime agricultural lands and natural areas that preserve and enhance the unique characteristics of the region surrounding the Sutter Buttes.
  • Build partnerships with landowners, community leaders, and developers to balance conservation with economic growth, flood protection, and water quality to help plan better communities.
  • Respect landowners’ rights and provide information to those who want to conserve their land.
  • Increase awareness of the Middle Mountain Foundation’s dedication to education, interpretation, and land conservation programs.
  • Maintain an efficient, effective, and sustainable organization.

Lands Protected

Lands Held in Fee

  • 200 acres of North Butte in the Sutter Buttes
  • 0.8 acres at the corner of West Butte and Pass Road, Live Oak, which includes the Historic West Butte School.

Land Protection Agreements

  • 30.64 acres in Marysville, corner of Walnut Ave and Messick Road

History of the Foundation

Open to the public

For many decades the landowners in the Sutter Buttes allowed easy public access to their ranches. By the 1960’s population growth lead to an overwhelming number of people wanting to access the Buttes and problems with visitors leaving gates open, painting graffiti on rock formations, fires, and other problems. Understandably, the landowners began to enforce rules against trespassing, and access to the Buttes was curtailed.

Demand for Access

By the 1970’s, California’s continued population growth had increased demands for more outdoor recreational areas. In response, the state made the acquisition of the Sutter Buttes as state parkland a number one priority. This resulted in such strong controversy between the private landowners and the members of the public who wanted access to the Buttes that the state tabled the parkland plans.

West Butte Sanctuary

One landowner decided that a way to protect against his land from being taken over by the state would be to provide the public some access. In 1976 he created the West Butte Sanctuary Company to allow egress in a controlled manner, and to realize income from the enterprise. He hired Walt and Rebecca Anderson to be directors of the Company.

Education Program Begins

The Andersons operated a gallery and gift shop, and led hikers into the Sutter Buttes, the nearby Sutter Sink waterfowl area, and other nearby wildlife refuges. They also conducted educational programs to increase public awareness of the uniqueness and value of the Sutter Buttes.

Sutter Buttes Naturalists

Expanding this concept in 1979, the Andersons set about establishing relationships with many of the Sutter Buttes landowners, and created The Sutter Buttes Naturalists. Through Walt and Rebecca’s work, the public was given access to private lands within the Buttes in a controlled manner that protected the flora and fauna, provided economic compensation for the landowners while relieving them of legal liabilities, and facilitated educational activities and scientific research in the Buttes. During his tenure in the Sutter Buttes, Walt penned assorted magazine articles about the landscape, and even published in 1983 The Sutter Buttes, A Naturalist’s View, a veritable one-volume encyclopedia of its geologic and natural history.

Middle Mountain Foundation Emerges

When the Andersons moved to Oregon in 1985, they hired naturalist Don Schmoldt to continue the operation of Sutter Buttes Naturalists. After two years Don, in turn, handed the organization over to Ira Heinrich. Ira partnering with Joe Freeman obtained non-profit status for the organization in 1989, which then became the Middle Mountain Foundation.

Interpretive Program Roots

Under Heinrich and Freeman’s tutelage the Foundation expanded its role in the community. A modestly priced school field trip program was initiated. Busloads of young people now had the opportunity to experience first hand the lessons of history and Mother Nature in the Buttes. Additional guides with varied backgrounds were brought into the organization. Outings continued to focus on the geological and natural aspects of a dramatic landscape, but a broader scope of thematic perspectives now included “Paths of the Heart, the sacred spirit of the Middle Mountain,” and “The Mountain in our Midst, the history and culture of the Sutter Buttes.” Overnight backpack treks and old ways workshops offered diverse experiences. Scores of outings each season enabled 1000’s to participate in educational experiences in the buttes.

Importance of the Sutter Buttes to Sutter County

Taking more of an advocacy role, Heinrich spoke out against a planned housing development and a proposed ash dump that would have filled up one on the canyons in the Buttes! He addressed the county supervisors and planners about preservation of the Buttes as they updated their General Plan. In 1994, Ira prepared and delivered an impassioned report in which he effectively conveyed the unique qualities of the Sutter Buttes, the value in preserving them in their entirety, and their important role in the sense of community in Sutter County.

North Butte Donated to Foundation

In 1996 Heinrich negotiated with McClatchy Newspapers, Inc. the donation of 200 acres of land, which comprises most of North Butte to the Middle Mountain Foundation. McClatchy had purchased the property intending to use it as an antenna site for future broadcast radio and TV operations, but by the 90’s they no longer pursued that course and chose to preserve the mountains’ integrity.

Legacy Continues

The Middle Mountain Foundation today continues to draw inspiration for all who came before us. Working cooperatively with Sutter Buttes landowners to provide controlled public access to the Buttes while preserving the natural and historic resources of the area is a legacy started by Anderson, and continued by Schmoldt and Heinrich. These people still contribute to our work today in a direct or advisory capacity.

Public Outreach

Since 2000, new faces and increased community involvement have expanded our educational programs. Slideshow presentations and an information booth at area festivals have expanded exposure and public awareness of the Sutter Buttes historical significance as well as the goals of the Foundation. School field trips have been augmented with teachers’ curriculum outlines and school presentations that bring the natural elements of the Buttes into the classroom. Public education programs are coordinated periodically, and there is an annual landowner appreciation reception to recognize those families whose stewardship of the rangelands has preserved a historical landscape.

Executive Director Hired

Depending solely on hike fees and donations, the Foundation has carefully built up cash reserves to hire part-time staff and a part-time executive director. Their responsibility is to manage the organization, to augment fundraising programs, to increase our public presence, to solicit community and business involvement, and even to influence governmental planning. MMF has built collaborative alliances with regional and national land trusts, we have facilitated conservation easement negotiations with landowners, and we are creating a working partnership with California State Parks, new owners of the historic Peace Valley on the North side of the Sutter Buttes.

Working Together to Protect the Sutter Buttes

From the inception of the West Butte Sanctuary Company, the Sutter Buttes Naturalists, and carried on by the Middle Mountain Foundation, one theme prevails. We have emphasized a faith in the ability of the people themselves to best protect and share the natural and cultural resources vital to the well being of their communities. Our success depends upon a positive spirit of constructive collaboration in the Buttes. In seeking a way for the public interest and private land to converge for the benefit of all, we have always favored inclusiveness; the bringing together private landowners with scientists, educators, students, artists and photographers, and anyone who loves a natural environment. Our common ground is the Sutter Buttes.