Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Napa property helps fill out corridor of protected range inland from coast

Ranch reborn as park
Napa property helps fill out corridor of protected range inland from coast

Glen Martin, Chronicle Environment Writer

Monday, January 30, 2006

The public purchase of a sprawling North Bay ranch has furthered a long-cherished dream of conservationists: A corridor of protected lands stretching from lower Solano County to upper Lake County that will provide new outdoor recreation opportunities for millions of people.

The 12,575-acre Napa Ranch, at the northern end of Lake Berryessa, is essential to the plan, said Ray Krauss, facilitator for the Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area Conservation Partnership, the working group for the project.

"When most people in this region think outdoor recreation, they instinctively think of the Sierra or the coast," Krauss said. "This will give them a wonderful alternative. We'd like to see a network of trails and primitive campsites for the entire area that can be used by hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians."

The ranch contains some of the loveliest country left in the coastal range, with rolling wooded parklands intersected by seasonal creeks and dramatic rock palisades. Wildlife abounds, including black bear, mountain lion, bald and golden eagles. Occasionally, tule elk drift in from the Cache Creek drainage.

The State Wildlife Conservation Board bought the ranch for $12.5 million last year from a Florida corporation; it will be administered as a wildlife area by the California Department of Fish and Game. The ranch has been posted with signs by Fish and Game, and is now open for hiking. Access is by the Berryessa Knoxville Road from Lake Berryessa.

Groups involved in the acquisition besides Fish and Game and the Wildlife Board include the California Nature Conservancy, the Land Trust of Napa County and the California Coastal Conservancy. Krauss said the partnership -- operating since 1996 -- eventually hopes to extend the protected zone south of Lake Berryessa to the outskirts of Fairfield. Currently, only a couple of protected parcels have been established south of the lake.

Natural-area advocates say their efforts could help check increasing development pressure in the mountains between Highway 101 and the Sacramento Valley. Their strategy involves both acquisition of land and long-term conservation easements on private ranches.

"This partnership points to the future of conservation in California," said Wendy Millet, the managing director for the North Coast and Klamath regions for the California Nature Conservancy. "This is how it's going to get done."

But there is some difference of opinion on how best to accommodate both people and wildlife in the region.

Phil Pridmore, a wildlife habitat supervisor for Fish and Game, said intensive recreational development isn't necessarily a priority for lands administered by his agency -- including the Napa Ranch.

"We're in the business of protecting and improving wildlife habitat," Pridmore said. "If recreational activities are appropriate for specific areas, we'll do our best to accommodate them. But we wouldn't think it's appropriate, for example, to allow thousands of hikers and mountain bikers into a fawning area for black-tailed deer."

Krauss said recreation is only one goal for how the preserve should be used and managed. "The other two are protection of biodiversity and preservation of the local ranching economy," he said. "We have a guiding framework that's helping managers plan for their individual parcels with all those goals in mind."

Ultimately, said Millet, the natural area should provide ample scope to satisfy all constituencies, from extreme mountain bikers to zealous birders, from hunters to research scientists to cattle ranchers. Different parcels probably will be managed for different purposes, she said, but reservation of open land will remain paramount.

"Avoiding degradation of the resource is the goal," said Millet. "We want to protect the sensitive areas and allow the public access to the areas that aren't so sensitive. It'll be a challenge to do both -- we're still working on long-term management plans."

Hikers, Pridmore said, should take note of one wild species in particular: Northern Pacific rattlesnakes. They are especially abundant at Napa Ranch, a fact that delights herpetologists but may be a source of concern to casual visitors. The snakes are denned and torpid now, but they will emerge and become active as the weather warms. High-topped boots are a good idea when hiking the ranch, Pridmore said, and visitors should watch where they sit or place their hands.

Open oak woodlands - increasingly rare in California - are a major feature of the ranch. So are "serpentine endemics" - communities of rare plants adapted to grow only on soils composed largely of serpentine, a green, asbestos-like mineral.

The ranch also has sites of considerable archaeological interest. The general area experienced a mining boom in the 19th century, and tons of mercury were extracted from local cinnabar deposits. Old stone foundations from now-extinct towns and homesteads can be found poking out of the grass and brush.

The region has been hard used in the past century, and not just by cinnabar miners. On 10,000 acres just north of Napa Ranch, Homestake Mining extracted gold from a huge open pit mine until relatively recently. Excessive livestock grazing also has been a perennial problem, and control of noxious invasive plants such as tamarisk, medusa and star thistle is a constant challenge, said Pridmore.

But rehabilitation of the land is well under way. The cattle are off the range. The old Homestake site has been cleaned up and is now administered by Fish and Game as a wildlife area. Tamarisks that choked several miles of creek bottom have been eliminated.

"Of course, there's still a lot to do," said Krauss, pointing to a vast expanse of bare, rolling hills near the old Homestake holdings.

"That used to be all beautiful oak woodland," he said.

In a range improvement experiment during the 1960s, Krauss said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture razed all the trees on the theory that their absence would improve water availability.

But all the logging did, said Krauss, was accelerate water runoff and soil erosion.

"It's amazing how the thinking on range lands and wildlands has changed since then," he said. "We'd like to see this all back in oaks. We don't have any plans yet - but we have lots of dreams."


Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area

For more information on the 785,000-acre Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area, go to

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