By Spencer Soper
The Press Democrat
Saturday, April 9, 2005

More than 3,000 acres of timberland will be added to Sonoma Coast State Beach next month in the biggest, most expensive parkland deal ever executed by Sonoma County's open space district.

The state Public Works Board on Friday approved contributing $2.2 million in state park funds to buy the land, the last piece of a $20.8 million deal to add 3,373 acres to the park and to permanently protect 515 acres next to it from development.

The addition increases the size of the park by more than 50 percent, to 9,600 acres, and pushes its eastern edge high up to ridge tops overlooking the Russian River and Tomales Point. Sonoma Coast beach attracts nearly 3 million visitors a year to its 19 miles of coastline, making it the fifth most popular of 278 state parks.

County Supervisor Mike Reilly, who represents the west county, said the deal underscores how the county Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District can find other funding sources to buy big-ticket properties it couldn't afford on its own.

The district contributed $10.2 million to buy the land from Calpella-based Mendocino Redwoods Co. The California Coastal Conservancy and Wildlife Conservation Board each contributed $4.2 million.

"This is clearly an acquisition of statewide importance, which is why we were able to partner with the Coastal Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Board and state parks," Reilly said. "The county open space district played a major part in this. But it's also instructional to see how we can leverage our open space dollars to do these kinds of acquisitions."

The district is also trying to buy a 1,737-acre ranch southeast of Petaluma that includes Tolay Lake for $18 million for use as a park. That deal also depends on securing money from other sources.

The coastal timberland is scheduled to transfer to the state park system next month. For the first four years, it will be managed by the nonprofit group LandPaths because the state does not have money to operate it.

LandPaths expects to open the property, which has about 17 miles of dirt roads for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding, as soon as the deal closes, said Craig Anderson, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based group.

The group will lead guided hikes each weekend, or people can get a permit to use the property on their own by contacting LandPaths, he said.

"We're not going to limit permits," Anderson said. "People will apply for a free permit, attend an orientation and then they can use the park as if it were any other state park."

Creating permanent park improvements, such as a visitors center and campgrounds, would take years of planning and require public hearings, state officials said.

In addition to creating more parkland, the property is considered important habitat for a variety of imperiled animals, including the northern spotted owl and the California red-legged frog.

Buying the land will protect Willow Creek and Freezeout Creek, both Russian River tributaries that provide spawning grounds for coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Left in private ownership, the timberlands could be logged and portions of the property could be planted with vineyards or subdivided into estate parcels, the open space district said.

Voters created the district in 1990, when they approved a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for its operations. The tax generates about $17 million annually.