Thursday, January 25, 2007

Land Trust Balances Recreation, Nature at King/Swett Ranches

Land Trust Balances Recreation, Nature at King/Swett Ranches
By Barry Eberling

Sue Wickham of Solano Land Trust climbs a hill in the Vallejo Swett Ranch that overlooks the Hiddenbrook Community. (Barry Eberling/Daily Republic)

FAIRFIELD - Some 4,000 acres comprising the King, Vallejo Swett and Eastern Swett ranches could someday be a place where humans have fun and rare frogs and butterflies continue to thrive.

The challenge is finding the right balance before opening up the land to the public. The Solano Land Trust, which owns the ranches in the hills between Fairfield and Vallejo, thinks it has some answers.

"You plan your trails well and you try to offer lots of recreational opportunities away from the sensitive areas," said Sue Wickham of the Land Trust.

For examples, none of the proposed 30 miles of trails are near certain streams and ponds. Those areas are home to the California red-legged frog, the largest native frog on the West Coast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says such factors as development have eliminated the frog from 70 percent of its historic habitat, leaving it at about 238 streams in 23 counties.

"Vallejo Swett ranch is just phenomenal for frogs," Wickham said. "So it's special. Very special."

Nor are trails planned near grassland fields with a certain type of violet. Callippe silverspot butterflies lay eggs on the plants. The butterflies are found at only a handful of locations, all in the Bay Area.

The ranches could end up a cross between a regional park and a nature preserve, with areas for rare creatures off-limits.

"This is a more restrictive policy than most regional parks or open space areas, which typically permit people on foot to wander where they want except in designated restoration areas," says a draft public access plan by Randy Anderson of Benicia-based LandPeople.

People can learn about and comment on the proposals during a Solano Land Trust Board meeting on Tuesday. It begins at 7 p.m. in the Cordelia Library, 5050 Business Center Drive.

Wickham has some favorite places on the King, Vallejo Swett and Eastern Swett ranches.

There's the woodland on the King ranch in the hills near Fairfield's Southbrook neighborhood. She likes looking at the oaks, which she described as old and gnarly.

"It's kind of quiet back there in the valley," she said.

Then there's the exhilarating view of the Central Valley and Bay Area from the top of the ridge in the Eastern Swett Ranch near Vallejo's Hiddenbrooke neighborhood. Sometimes, the fog hits various portion of the 1,000-foot-plus hill.

"It's interesting weather combinations up there, very changeable," Wickham said.

People could see such spots under the draft LandPeople plan. They could hike, ride mountain bikes and ride horses along various trails.

But the plan sees the ranches more like a Rockville Hills Park than a Lake Solano Regional Park. No RV campsites, large campgrounds or swimming areas are planned. There could be a hike-in campsite. Dogs would be prohibited.

Making certain people stay away from the restricted areas for rare creatures would be a challenge. Alert rangers, stiff tickets for violators, public education and volunteer patrols could be needed, the plan said.

A segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail would pass through the ranches. When completed, the 580-mile Ridge Trail is to surround the Bay Area.

Money is needed to someday open up the ranches as a regional park. Building the trails and staging areas and providing such things as restrooms and picnic tables could cost $1.7 million, the LandPeople study estimates. That doesn't count the annual operating costs, which include such things as rangers.

Possibilities include having the county manage the land as part of the county parks system or forming a Solano County parks district, the study said. The agencies could hire a private firm to do the day-to-day chores.

The plan by LandPeople doesn't include many money-generating activities at the King and Swett ranches. County Supervisor Mike Reagan has pushed to have parks be more self-sustaining, so they take less tax subsidies. But the grants the Land Trust used to purchase the ranches prohibits public vehicle access or major campgrounds.

Solano County and the Land Trust are teaming up to open nearby, 1,039-acre Lynch Canyon as a county park this spring on a three-year trial basis. What happens with that venture could determine if the county will help open up the King and Swett ranches as parks, too.

For now, though, the future of the King and Swett ranches as parks remains in the planning stages and the public can still have a say.

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at

Fast facts on the King, Eastern Swett and Vallejo Swett ranches

- About 100 species of birds, mammals reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates have been recorded on the ranches.

- PG&E during the 1980s intended the ranches to become wind turbine farms.

- The Solano Land Trust spent $8.1 million buying the nearly 4,000 acres over a period of years to preserve it as open space.

Comment on the plan

The Solano Land Trust Board on Tuesday will accept comments on a draft public access plan for the King, Eastern Swett and Vallejo Swett ranches. It meets at 7 p.m. in the Cordelia Library, 5050 Business Center Drive. Please go to the Land Trust Web site at to see the plan.

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