By Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
The San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Richard Royer stood on the windy bluff and swept his arm in an arc over the sprawling expanse of redwood forests, meadows and valleys that make up the Willow Creek watershed near the Sonoma County coast.

The interpretive specialist for the Russian River/Mendocino district of the California State Parks had seen the magnificent view before, but Tuesday he was seeing it from an entirely new perspective.

The 3,373 acres that had been used by loggers for much of the past two centuries was finally in the public's hands, protected once and for all from development.

"It's spectacular,'' Royer said during a stop as he led an impromptu tour of the state's new property for a reporter, photographer and a couple of others.

The huge tract was purchased for $20,785,000 from Mendocino Redwood Co. in a deal that saw the state join forces with a coalition of nonprofit agencies and environmental organizations. Another 515 acres of ranchland was protected through private conservation easements.

The stunning expanse of new state property, just south of the Russian River hamlet of Duncans Mills, will become part of the adjacent Sonoma Coast State Beach. It means there are now 13,500 acres of protected landscape in western Sonoma County extending from the Pacific Ocean to the coastal hills, including redwood forests and inland grasslands, according to conservationists.

"In Sonoma County it is certainly the biggest-ever acquisition of open space that will be a park," said Kathleen Brennan-Hunter, the conservation program manager for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, one of the many agencies involved in the purchase.

Which is why Royer could barely contain himself as he marveled at the landscape laid out in front of him.

"If you look down there, you can see the Russian River drainage," he said. "We pretty much have the whole thing out to the Russian River. And look at that view of the ocean. This is a wonderful example of private and public agencies partnering to do a good thing."

Still, there is a lot of work left to do. The state parks will conduct a series of studies of the entire Willow Creek property, including assessments of native plants and archaeology. Royer said the logging roads and trails that snake through the property would have to be assessed to determine which should be maintained. An accounting will also have to be made of any campsites of Coastal Miwok and Pomo Indians, who are known to have spent time in the area.

The operation and management plan includes the creation of a 15-mile loop trail through the Willow Creek property that will connect the towns of Occidental and Camp Meeker to the existing Coastal Trail near Jenner. Willow Creek, which was once home to thousands of Coho salmon and steelhead trout until it was silted over, will be restored.

The effort, led by the Trust for Public Land, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the California Wildlife Conservation Board and the state parks, has been in the works since 1999 after the Mendocino Redwood Co. purchased the holdings of Louisiana Pacific.

The area is on what was once a Mexican land grant called Bodega Rancho. The Russians are believed to have begun logging the old-growth forests in the early 1800s. It has been owned by logging interests ever since and all the trees are now second- and third-growth redwoods.

A narrow gauge railroad once snaked through the park, and in the 1880s there was a working sawmill, according to old timers in the area.

The Willow Creek area is surrounded by a patchwork of old ranches and summer cabins. Hunters still use adjacent property to hunt pig and deer. Mountain lions and black bears are known to live in the area.

Craig Anderson, the executive director of LandPaths, a nonprofit conservation agency that helped with the management plan, said the hope was to open the area to the public starting June 1 by issuing user permits. He said docent-led walks would be offered every Saturday until the studies were completed and a more comprehensive use plan was developed.

Only about 10 percent of the money that is needed to run the park is available, he said, so volunteers are going to be a necessity.

"What this place is about is what this place is going to grow into," Anderson said.

As of now, everyone seems to be happy, including the neighbors.

"It's beautiful land, and we hope everybody out there enjoys it as much as we do," said Barry Fisher, 72, who has owned a five-acre family campground next to the park for 40 years. "We hope its going to be really wonderful."