A public-private partnership led by the Conservation Fund has bought nearly 20,000 acres of coastal redwood and fir forest in Sonoma County, sparing the Northern California haven for endangered Coho salmon and threatened northern spotted owls from conversion into vineyards.
The fund, which bought the Preservation Ranch property on Friday for $24.5 million, will sustainably manage the coastal woodlands for timber, carbon sequestration and restoration of Coho salmon habitat degraded by years of intensive logging.
The transaction ended a decade-long dispute between the previous owner, Premier Pacific Vineyards, which had sought state and county permits to cultivate Pinot Noir grapes and build high-end estates on the property, and environmentalists who wanted to protect the ecosystem of second-growth forests still recovering from timber harvesting after World War II.
Opponents organized under the banner Friends of the Gualala River mounted a campaign against the CalPERS-funded company that included street theater tactics and an online petition signed by 90,000 critics of the development project.
Chris Poehlmann, an environmental activist and specialist in designing interactive museum exhibits, appeared at public meetings of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors dressed as a 7-foot-tall, 40-pound wine bottle. He also carried a giant plywood replica of a chain saw.
"After all these years, our efforts have come to fruition," Poehlmann said in an interview on Tuesday. "Now, these forest lands won't be turned into mini-mansions attached to vanity vineyards polluting the watershed."
Facing mounting costs and increasingly negative publicity, CalPERS dismissed Premier in 2011, and then "contacted me to discuss our interest in the property," Chris Kelley, California program director for the Conservation Fund, said.
"In quiet negotiations, we inked a deal in December 2012 to purchase the property," Kelley said. "We stopped a catastrophic conversion process and pioneered a new approach to financing conservation programs in the area: revenues from sales of carbon offsets generated across the property."
The deal closed with grants and loans provided by the Conservation Fund, the California Coastal Conservancy, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.