In recent decades, much of the Napa Valley landscape has been converted to vineyards, ranchettes, resorts and homes as global demand for Napa wines has soared and arable land in the region has become increasingly scarce.
Opportunities to secure large tracts of land in this region do not occur often. In 2016, we had the opportunity to partner with The Trust for Public Land and other partners to safeguard a high conservation-value property that has been owned by the same family since the 19th century.
Conserving and stewarding landscapes like this relies on the long-term efforts of countless local conservation groups and agencies dedicated to protecting the ecosystems and biodiversity of the region. These groups work together to identify opportunities to enhance habitat for native plant and animal species in the Bay Area.
With a grant from the foundation to The Trust for Public Land, and in partnership with the Land Trust of Napa County, the deal secured a conservation easement over part of a vast tract of Napa wilderness. Much of the 7,260-acer property remains undeveloped semi-wilderness, and borders Robert Louis Stevenson State Park and other state, federal and Land Trust-protected lands.
The ranchland sits at a crossroads for wildlife, is a source of abundant perennial fresh water, boasts some of the highest native species concentrations in the region, and ranges across elevational gradients, microclimates and ecological niches.
As Dave Sutton, acting state director for The Trust for Public Land explained, “The preserved property is one of the most significant tracts of wilderness near Napa Valley. Its protection is crucial to preserving the natural character of this area that is well-known around the world.”
Diverse and critical habitat
Encompassing evergreen forests, chaparral, wildflowers, oak, madrone, California bay and pine, the property sustains one of the highest concentrations of known threatened and endangered species on private land within the five-county Blue Ridge Berryessa Natural Area.
Identified by the Conservation Lands Network as “Essential to Conservation Goals,” and as a linchpin by the Bay Area Critical Linkages project, the property is also home to at least 20 rare plant species, including the Rincon Ridge ceanothus and Vine Hill ceanothus, both of which are listed as “seriously threatened” by the California Native Plant Society. The Coast Range Newt, Foothill yellow-legged frog, Western pond turtle and the California giant salamander have all been found in the project area, along with myriad other amphibians, reptiles, and several fish, including Sierra Treefrogs, aquatic garter snakes, largemouth bass, bluegill, mosquito fish, signal crayfish and rainbow trout and steelhead. In addition, the sheer size of the large, diverse and connected landscape offers a valuable ecological refuge and migration corridor for species facing the impacts of a shifting climate.
Doug Parker, CEO of the Land Trust of Napa County summarized the property’s extraordinary value in this way: “It has one of the highest concentrations of significant native species in a five-county region and it has been identified as a key crossroads for wildlife movement from the San Francisco Bay Area to points north and east. This ranch ranked as the number one priority for biodiversity conservation in the county.”
A steady stream of ecosystem services
California’s mountains and foothills are important sources of freshwater for the state, and this property is a wellspring in its own right. On average, 44,670 acre-feet of rainfall on the land each year, much of which percolates into groundwater. An average of 25,600 acre-feet of freshwater also flows off the property annually through surface streams, subsequently draining into Lake Berryessa, which in turn provides water for Solano County cities and a global agricultural industry.
From some of the highest lookouts within the property, visitors will be able to enjoy sublime vistas of much of the San Francisco Bay Area. On clear days, they may even see straight to the top of Mt. Shasta, some 200 miles away. With the conservation of this ranchland, local communities and visitors from far-flung origins alike will experience the beauty of this distinctive region of California, and imagine how the entire county appeared, long before the advent of vineyards, housing developments and resorts.
With the connection to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, managers plan to create new multi-use public trails that will be linked to the existing trail networks in the state park. In addition to these existing trails, a new wooded trail will offer access to the summit of Mount St. Helena and connections to important regional trails, including the Bay Area Ridge Trail and Napa Valley Vine Trail along the valley floor.
Conserving a resource for future generations
With additional support from partners, including the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the California State Coastal Conservancy, the California Natural Resources Agency and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, the purchase and conservation easement removes subdivision, development and vineyard conversion rights across the property, reserving limited rights to 100 acres of vineyards and six homes within the property’s existing development footprint.
The easement restricts the amount of spring water that can be harvested to a quantity that will not impact the hydrology of the property’s creeks and streams. In addition to protecting the supply and quality of the property’s water resources, the easement includes forest management and timber harvest restrictions that conserve and enhance habitat for local wildlife and the forest’s capacity to capture carbon.
This critical acquisition also effectively completes what is now a 34-square mile contiguous conservation landscape, a great asset for generations to come.