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Promised Land

Author: Karen Hart
July, 2012 Issue

As thousands of acres of open space are lost to development annually, the public is turning more frequently to land trusts, which are filling a need to protect and steward remaining open lands.

Legend has it that in 1854, Chief Sealth⎯more commonly known as Chief Seattle⎯of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, gave a speech to a large gathering in Seattle, sharing his thoughts and concerns about the act of selling land and the importance of stewarding it. The speech, which is attributed to the chief but was later rewritten by others, has been cited as a powerful plea to respect the environment. In one modernized version, he’s quoted as saying:

“The president in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect…So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers….”

Nearly 160 years later, Americans from all walks of life can appreciate the pristine quality of land that remains untouched in the United States. According to the Land Trust Alliance, as thousands of acres of open space are lost to development annually, the public is turning more frequently to land trusts, which are filling a need to protect and steward remaining open lands.

What is a land trust?

A land trust is a private, nonprofit organization that actively works to conserve land by undertaking or assisting with direct land transactions, according to the Land Trust Alliance. Land trusts make it their mission to conserve land by purchasing or accepting donations of land or conservation easements. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust that permanently protects the land from further development.

There are currently more than 1,500 land trusts across the United States, protecting more than 9 million acres of farmland, wetlands, ranches, forests and other land types as well as several national land trusts that have protected millions more acres.

Those who live in the North Bay know the extraordinary beauty and variety of landscapes here⎯the coastline, the redwood forests, vineyards, farms and ranches. The mission of North Bay land trusts is to protect the landscapes for present and future generations.

Protecting the countryside

The Sonoma Land Trust, founded in 1976, is the third largest private landowner in the county. The land trust has preserved nearly 27,000 acres and owns more than 10 preserves throughout the county.

Sonoma County is one of the most biologically diverse places in the United States; 20 Sonoma County species are found nowhere else on earth. Plus, “We have a land-based economy⎯grapes and vineyards, tourism and forests⎯and that’s the big attractor,” says Ralph Benson, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust. “The land inspires us and our mission is to pass it on intact.”

Three properties they consider among their most significant projects include the Sonoma Baylands, Glen Oaks Ranch and the Jenner Headlands.

The Sonoma Baylands are located on the southern tip of the county in an area that was once submerged by the tides. In 2003, a casino was proposed for the area, but the Sonoma Land Trust raised $20 million to save 2,327-acres, which are now known as the Sears Point Restoration Project.

According to Benson, this is an ecologically sensitive area, and the land trust will begin restoration this year. “Historically, the San Francisco Bay lost 90 percent of its tidal wetlands. Such wetlands are vitally important as nurseries for fish and to modulate and absorb storm surges for humans,” he says. The restoration project encompasses nearly 1,000 acres of tidal marsh habitat that will benefit the baylands ecosystem and endangered species, such as the California Clapper Rail, and provide Bay Area communities with improved flood protection and recreation. In addition, much of the uplands will remain in agricultural production.

Another site that the Sonoma Land Trust is preserving is Glen Oaks Ranch. “It’s the essence of old California,” says Benson. Glen Oaks Ranch is significant for its history, natural resources and location. General Mariano Vallejo acquired it as part of the El Rancho Agua Caliente land grant in 1839. It changed hands several times before it was purchased by Charles Stuart in 1859. The ranch, originally named Glen Ellen, features a stone mansion, which was built by Charles and his wife, Ellen. When the town was named Glen Ellen in honor of Ellen Stuart, the ranch was later renamed Glen Oaks to avoid confusion.

The ranch was owned by a number of families over the years until it became the home of Roswell and Camille Cochran and their daughter, Joan, in 1952. Once her parents passed away, Joan devoted herself to the restoration and protection of the ranch. As a result of her efforts, it was accepted into the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Joan later granted a conservation easement to the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and, upon her death in 2002, bequeathed the ranch to the Sonoma Land Trust. The ranch includes 40 acres of vineyards, a cluster of historic buildings and several hundred acres of wild country traversed by Stuart Creek.

The third project that the Sonoma Land Trust is actively working to preserve is the Jenner Headlands, a magnificent and diverse landscape along the Sonoma Coast. Originally, the land was privately owned. While the area could’ve been legally divided into 42 parcels and transformed into a large-scale development, the owners gave the land trust the opportunity to raise funds to protect the land and keep it intact for generations to come.

It took the Sonoma Land Trust five years to raise funds, which it acquired in 2009 for $36 million, and is the largest open space acquisition in Sonoma County. The land trust just finished the two-year process of developing the management plan for Jenner, which will enhance the ecological resources of the property as well as open it up for public recreation such as hiking and camping.

What’s ahead for the Sonoma Land Trust? “Sonoma County’s population will continue to grow, but the county can accommodate considerable growth within the urban boundaries,” says Benson. “Our focus is to preserve and protect our beautiful and productive rural landscapes—the places that define Sonoma County—for generations to come. Climate change is real and happening and that’s all the more reason to protect large landscapes.”

Preserving the character of Napa County

The Land Trust of Napa County (LTNC) was founded 35 years ago and, since that time, it’s preserved more than 53,000 acres in the county. “We’re the only land trust in Napa County, and our mission is to protect the county's character by permanently protecting land. If, 100 years from now, Napa County looks similar to how it does today, then we’ve done our job. If it’s all asphalt and houses, then we will have failed,” says Joel Tranmer, chief executive officer.

The land trust’s main focus is to protect the agricultural nature and beauty of Napa County, which is the backbone of its economy. According to Tranmer, when considering which properties to protect, they consider its agricultural importance, biological diversity and whether it’s scenically beautiful. “If it has enough environmental value, we’ll consider protecting it.”

One of the most important pieces of property the LTNC has protected to-date is Wildlake Duff Ranch. Wildlake Duff is a 4,165-acre piece of property, which includes Dunn-Wildlake and Duff Ranches, located near Angwin in the heart of Howell Mountain in Napa Valley. “It will be forever wild,” says Tranmer. “You can see it from almost any vantage point in the Northern Napa Valley.” This spectacular swath of land spans the valley’s north eastern horizon and includes more than 15 miles of the ridge line.

The LTNC acquired Dunn-Wildlake and Duff Ranches for $25 million through its Napa Valley Wild capital campaign, which kicked off in 2006. These preserves are used as part of the Land Trust’s hiking and field trips program.

Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, directly adjacent to Wildlake Duff, includes other protected areas such areas as the Bandettini Transfer, which is 147 acres on Mt. St. Helena showcasing Douglas fir forests, a caretaker cabin and a portion of the trail heading up to Mt. St. Helena; the Sutro Surber, which has 528 acres of undeveloped forestlands; and open space in the hills east of Calistoga (a conservation easement over the property was sold to the California Department of Parks by Dennis Sutro and Ted and Sandy Surber in 2000) and more.

The land trust also preserved hundreds of acres of additional open space in the Howell Mountain area. This area includes the Audubon-Cheyney Preserve, which features 120 acres of open space and Douglas firs in the city of St. Helena’s Bell Canyon watershed; Sentinel Hill, which includes 64 acres of mature Douglas fir forest; and a portion of the Heitz Wine Cellars property, which includes 260 acres of ridgeland forest and meadow on the uplands of Lake Hennessey.

It’s also protected more than 9,000 acres of planted agricultural land⎯mostly vineyards⎯as well as land that became city parks in Napa, St. Helena and American Canyon. The largest city park it helped create is Newell Open Space Preserve in American Canyon.

“Stewardship is a very important part of the land trust world. The LTNC owns 6,600 acres of land and is responsible for the welfare of the plants and animals that depend on the habitat,” says Tranmer.

What are LTNC’s plans for the future? “We’ve just started the process of developing our next long-range strategic plan. Because we work to protect the character of Napa County, we must focus on protecting the land that defines that character,” says Tranmer. “In the future, we’re going to keep doing more of what we’ve done for the past 35 years—protect this place we love.”

Safeguarding food-producing land

The Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) was founded in 1980 by a coalition of ranchers and environmentalists to preserve Marin County farmland for agricultural use. Marin County features important food-producing land, says Bob Berner, executive director of MALT. “The working farms and ranches are a fundamental part of what makes Marin extraordinary.

“We’re all learning that local food is better for us in a variety of ways. It’s produced in a sustainable way. It’s healthy and high quality and because it hasn’t been shipped thousands of miles, its environmental footprint is modest,” says Berner.

Some of the Bay Area’s most highly acclaimed dairy products and organic crops are produced on farmland protected by MALT conservation easements, which total more than 44,100 acres on 68 family farms and ranches. According to Berner, more than one-third of the land area in Marin is a working landscape. “Of that, about 40 percent has been permanently protected by conservation easements to ensure the land will be available for productive agricultural use.”

Some of the properties MALT has preserved in recent years include the Corda Ranch, the Thorton Ranch and the Mazzuchi Ranch.

The Corda Ranch, located on Novato Boulevard, is a 1,214-acre working ranch. Fred Corda grew up on the ranch and later married his wife, Nettie, and had three children, all of whom grew up on the ranch and continued the family tradition of operating a dairy farm. When the dairy herd was sold in 1994, the family leased the pasture to neighbors and took jobs outside, but never wavered from their commitment to keep the ranch.

For the past several years, MALT has been working with the family to acquire an agricultural conservation easement to protect the ranch. A grant from the Lucasfilm Foundation, along with gifts from other MALT supporters and a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) enabled MALT to purchase the easement and let the family hold onto the property and continue ranching.

Thornton Ranch is another project MALT has recently been working to preserve. It was settled nearly 160 years ago by Gary Thornton’s ancestors, the Marshalls, as part of the family’s massive land holdings, which once stretched from Bodega Bay to the town of Marshall, which the family founded.

Thornton Ranch is a 1,013-acre property that maintains a sense of remoteness in the Bay Area that’s rarely seen today. The rolling hills are accessible by a narrow road that stretches and winds past towering eucalyptus and fields of lambing ewes and Black Angus cattle. On a clear day, the ranch offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the geothermal steams of Geyserville. When Thornton’s father died, Thornton was forced to sell his dairy herd and nearly sell part of the property to developers as a result of the estate taxes he was required to pay.

Thornton worked with MALT, navigating complex legal and tax issues, to protect the landscape. Today, plans are underway to make sure the land is used for agriculture going forward. The Thornton family is currently selling grass-fed lamb, experimenting with planting barley and taking steps to renovate the milk facilities.

MALT also recently worked with the Mazzuchi family to protect its 216-acre ranch, which is prime agricultural land in northern Marin County. Stan Mazzuchi and his sister, Evelyn, continue to live on the property, where they run sheep and currently have 300 ewes. “It’s a productive ranch,” says Berner.

According to Berner, MALT is midway in a marathon to protect the landscape in Marin County. “Land preservation is a long-term endeavor. We know where we are, but we have a long way to go. Step-by-step, property by property, we’ll continue to protect this land and the values it represents to the county and region.”

Caring for the legacy and passing it on

All those years ago, Chief Sealth closed his speech with the following advice: “If we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it, as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it…As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. The earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you.”

In the spirit of Chief Sealth’s plea to respect the earth, North Bay land trusts are committed to protecting the land and stewarding it.

“The three land trusts have had an enormous impact on the landscape of the North Bay,” affirms Benson. “The Napa Land Trust protected the vineyards from the incursion of sprawling residential development; in Sonoma County, we protect agricultural land, but we also connect natural areas and scenic and historic landscapes; and in Marin, the focus is on dairies and ranches. Protecting these beautiful landscapes is within our reach, and with the threat of climate change, it’s more important than ever. It falls to each generation to take care of our legacy landscapes and pass them on.”



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