Lori Carter, Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Framed by a backdrop of rugged coastline, rolling hills, rushing river and stately redwoods, nature lovers on Saturday celebrated the single largest conservation land acquisition in Sonoma County.
The Sonoma Land Trust closed escrow in December on the Jenner Headlands Preserve, a 5,630-acre ranch at the mouth of the Russian River. The complex deal involved dozens of public and private entities and 16 landowners.
Those involved in the project announced that the Wildlands Conservancy, a privately funded conservation organization based in Southern California, would take over ownership and management of the property in three years.
“This is a very storied land. It's such a magnificent site,” said Ralph Benson, executive director of the land trust. “I see this really as another chapter in the story of California protecting its coast.”
Henry Alden, vice president of Gualala Redwoods, which used its portion of the property for logging redwoods and grazing cattle since the early 1960s, led more than three dozen field trips to the site during negotiations. He represented one of the primary sellers, Dr. Ollie Edmunds of New Orleans, La.
“No one ever said, ‘I think it could be prettier,'” he said, gesturing toward the panoramic vista. “It's hard to imagine that this shouldn't be a park.”
More than 100 people enjoyed the scenery and catered food and wine in perfect weather.
“There are probably more people here today than there has been in 150 years,” quipped another seller, David Ferreira.
The Sonoma Land Trust raised $36 million over the past five years to buy the property from 16 owners. When state grant money became questionable because of the recession, the Wildlands Conservancy, Save the Redwoods League and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation offered $16 million in bridge loans.
The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District provided $9.15 million. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration donated nearly $6 million. And the Palo Alto-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation pledged $4 million toward the purchase and another $2 million toward the ongoing stewardship of the land.
Five years ago, former West County Supervisor Mike Reilly fielded preliminary inquiries from Edmunds about what type of developments would be allowed on the hilly landscape.
“He was curious whether development on the Sonoma coast was any different than what he experienced in Louisiana,” Reilly said, smiling. “He didn't appreciate my answer.”
Realizing the strong interest in permanently conserving the scenic land for the public's enjoyment, the owners began negotiating with Sonoma Land Trust acquisition manager Amy Chestnut.
For the next five years, Chestnut crisscrossed the country seeking agreements to make the deal happen.
West County Supervisor Efren Carrillo said the land potentially could have been developed with low-density housing or even a hotel.
“Thankfully we will never have to see that day,” he said. “This is the gem of gems when it comes to land acquisition.”
Plans call for a 2.5-mile section of the property to connect to the state's coastal trail. Guided hikes have been offered since January.
The Wildlands Conservancy has preserved more land in California than any other conservation organization. Providing extensive public access and environmental education are hallmarks of the group's philosophy.
Executive Director David Myers said his agency's first entrée into Sonoma County is a good fit.
“It's an amazing county,” he said. “People voted twice to assess themselves. How often do people look at the dollar and weigh how it affects their hearts and souls instead of their bank accounts?”
The acquisition brings to nearly 20,000 acres of protected land along the Sonoma Coast, providing an almost unbroken stretch from Bodega Head to Fort Ross.
Article from Santa Rosa Press Democrat
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