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Preservation Ranch Acquisition, Coastal Conservancy staff recommendation April, 2013


Project Summary:
Staff is recommending that the Conservancy authorize the disbursement of up to $10,000,000 to The Conservation Fund (“TCF”) to acquire the approximately 19,650-acre property known as “Preservation Ranch” in northern Sonoma County (see Exhibit 1). This acquisition will put to rest the most contentious land use debate in Sonoma County – the proposed conversion of more than 1,800 acres of the property’s forestlands and grasslands to vineyards, and subdivision of the ranch into 60 rural residential estate parcels.

Preservation Ranch covers 30 square miles of the Gualala River watershed. The land is rugged and undeveloped, except for a network of legacy logging roads and a seventeen-acre vineyard with associated small house, and has for many decades been industrial timberland. The ranch connects to over 50,000 acres of protected working forest and open space lands. More than 20 miles of class 1 and 2 streams traverse the property, including significant stretches of Buckeye, Franchini and Rockpile Creeks, and the Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River, all important for steelhead trout. Past logging practices have increased the delivery of sediment to these streams; management under TCF will reduce sediment flow to these waterways.

The property is designated as “essential and important for conservation” in the Bay Area’s Conservation Lands Network (Exhibit 3) and encompasses numerous natural communities, including redwood/Douglas fir forest, coastal oak woodland, montane hardwood forest, mixed chaparral, coastal scrub, grasslands, and numerous streams, wetlands, seeps and springs. These habitats are home to known occurrences of several special-status species, as well as myriad non-listed fish and wildlife species. Because of these extensive natural attributes, the current owner’s proposal to convert 1671 acres of forestland and 190 acres of grasslands to vineyards, and then subdivide the ranch into 60 estates, has caused significant concern in the community. An Initial Study of the proposed development prepared by Sonoma County under the California Environmental Quality Act acknowledged that the vineyard conversion portion of the development proposal alone was expected to result in the removal of more than 302,000 trees.

With TCF’s purchase of the property, the threat of conversion and subdivision of the ranch will be forever removed. TCF will maintain the property as a working forest, and, through patient management, will enhance the forest and riparian habitats throughout the property. The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation District (“SCAPOSD”), which is expected to contribute funds to the acquisition, will obtain a conservation easement over the Ranch, with the exception of two disjunct parcels and a vineyard that may be sold subject to the approval of the Executive Officer and suitable conservation restrictions, as discussed below. SCAPOSD’s easement will further protect the conservation values of the property. Development on the property will be restricted to two small areas – one for a single residence, and one for the potential development of an educational facility.

Access to the site is primarily through the private “Kelly Road.” Kelly Road provides adequate access to the Ranch for timber management, but is not open to the general public; thus extensive public access is not anticipated on the Ranch following acquisition. However, TCF, as a condition of this grant, will work with the Conservancy and others to identify public access opportunities for the site, perhaps in conjunction with the 40-acre Soda Springs Reserve, a Sonoma County Park which abuts the property.

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Preservation Ranch, TCF map
click to enlarge

Site Description:
Preservation Ranch lies in northwestern Sonoma County, east of the community of Sea Ranch, and west of Lake Sonoma. The westernmost portion of the property is approximately three miles inland from the coast, and the property extends over nine miles in a west-east direction. The northern boundary is the Sonoma/Mendocino County line, and Skaggs Springs Road is the southern boundary (Exhibit 1). In total, the ranch covers 30 square miles, entirely within the Gualala River watershed, and ranges in elevation from 75 to 2,339 feet. There are 160 existing legal parcels, ranging in size from 5 to 640 acres spread across the landscape.

The property’s landscape is characteristic of the Coast Ranges of western Sonoma County, with predominantly northwest-southeast trending ridges and intervening valleys. The geology, soils and climate of the area result in moderately steep to steep, forested slopes with gentler, flatter ridgetops, some covered with oak woodlands and grasslands. As discussed in the “Project History” section below, the property has been industrial forestland for many decades, and as a result, the majority of the property is covered by second and third growth redwood and douglas fir forests with some sugar pine. Other vegetation types found on the ranch include montane hardwoods, riparian corridors, chapparal and coastal scrub.

The Gualala River has been listed by the state as an impaired water body under Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), due to sedimentation and elevated temperatures. The input of sediment into the streams is related to unstable underlying geology, steep slopes and high rainfall. Approximately 190 miles of legacy logging roads crisscross the property, and exacerbate the problem. Under TCF management, the road network will be assessed and treated, to diminish sediment inputs to the Gualala River tributaries.

The property is directly adjacent to 38,000 of Mendocino County forestland owned and managed by TCF, which manages its lands for natural diversity, ecological integrity and economic productivity (including sustainable forest management) and the restoration of significant habitat for wildlife, fish and plants. An additional 12,000 acres of adjacent private property is protected through conservation easements that limit development potential.

Project History:
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, what is today Preservation Ranch was inhabited by the Kashaya Pomo, who subsisted on hunting, fishing and gathering. Evidence of their presence is still found scattered across the landscape. After European settlement and before World War II, Preservation Ranch comprised primarily separate homesteader claims, with some small orchards, grazing and limited timber harvest being the predominate uses. After 1945, timber companies aggregated homesteads across the north coast to create large timberland tracts, and aggressive mechanized timber harvest began in the 1950s and 1960s, prior to the adoption of California’s Forest Practice Act in 1973. As a result, much of Preservation Ranch was clearcut during that period, and has been harvested twice, and in some areas three times.

Prior to 2004, the Ranch was part of a larger 57,000 acre industrial forest tract called “Longview” that included the Garcia and Gualala River Forests. In 2004, the Longview Tract was essentially divided into three, with the sale of the Garcia River Forest to TCF (which was purchased in part with Conservancy funds), and Preservation Ranch to an investment partnership backed by CalPERS and led by Premier Pacific Vineyards (“PPV”), whose intent was to subdivide the property into 60 estate parcels, and convert approximately 1,671 acres of forests and 190 acres of grasslands and oak woodlands to vineyards, dotted across the landscape (see Exhibit 1). The intermediary property, the Gualala River Forest, was retained by the prior owner until 2011, when TCF acquired the property with funding assistance from WCB and The Nature Conservancy.

Beginning in 2004, PPV worked to move its development project through the planning process with Sonoma County. PPV perfected Certificates of Compliance, confirming the 160 legal parcels on the ranch, and prepared a number of background studies to support its 2008 application to Sonoma County for necessary zoning and conversion approvals for the proposed development / conversion project. In 2009 Sonoma County prepared an initial study for the proposed development/conversion plan which identified a number of potentially significant development impacts. Among other things, the Initial Study found that the project may:

  • “[D]egrade the quality of the environment, substantially reduce the habitat of a fish or wildlife species, cause a fish or wildlife population to drop below self-sustaining levels”;
  • “Eliminate a plant or animal community, reduce the number or restrict the range of a rare or endangered plant or animal or eliminate important examples of the major periods of California history or prehistory”; and
  • Induce “substantial population growth in [the] area, either directly (for example, by proposing new homes and businesses) or indirectly (for example through extension of roads or other infrastructure).”

PPV’s proposed project was highly controversial throughout Sonoma County, and drew media coverage from local and national newspapers in the Summer and Fall of 2011, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. An on-line petition gathered more than 90,000 signatures in opposition to the project, before the petition was closed. Opponents’ concerns focused on the conversion of timberland to vineyards, fragmentation of habitats, and impacts to the Gualala River and its anadromous fish.

In October 2011, CalPERS severed its ties with PPV on Preservation Ranch, gaining control of the property, and in December of that year Friends of the Gualala River [emphasis added], a local advocacy group called on CalPERS to abandon its development plans and consider a conservation solution. CalPERS and TCF subsequently began discussing a conservation transaction in early 2012. Before Summer 2012, Conservancy staff began working with TCF and CalPERS to develop the project which is the subject of this proposed authorization.


The complete staff report is available
on the Coastal Conservancy website:
Preservation Ranch Acquisition,
Coastal Conservancy staff recommendation

For additional information, see:

Gualala RiverLetter from FoGR supporting the purchase of Preservation Ranch
Friends of the Gualala River enthusiastically supports the Coastal Conservancy staff recommendation to assist The Conservation Fund in the purchase of Preservation Ranch in western Sonoma County.

Gualala RiverPreservation Ranch purchase
facing May 31 deadline

The effort to buy Preservation Ranch still needs money and a state board’s okay before the controversial timber-to-grapes conversion proposed near the town of Annapolis is officially halted.
March 27, 2013, Sonoma West Times & News

Gualala River Forest$24.5 million deal to protect
20,000-acre Sonoma County forest

A national conservation group has reached an agreement to buy nearly 20,000 acres of timberland in northwestern Sonoma County, a move that derails the long-disputed, forest-to-vineyards conversion project pushed by CalPERS, the giant state workers pension fund. February 26, 2013, Santa Rosa Press Democrat

“Preservation” Ranch
Evans Ridge vineyard development on 'Preservation' Ranch
The so-called “Preservation” Ranch is a 19,300 acre development in the heart of the Gualala River watershed. Premier Pacific Vineyards plans to destroy and fragment coastal redwood forest to plant grapes on the ridgetops – and call that “preservation.”

Artesa Sonoma forest-to-vineyard conversion
Redwood forest on the Artesa Annapolis property
CAL FIRE has approved the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for Artesa Winery’s controversial plan to clear-cut 154 acres of coastal redwood forest to plant a vineyard in Annapolis. The EIR claims that the project will have no significant environmental or cultural impacts.