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Big Sur Deal Will Save Nearly 10,000 Acres

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A pair of conservation groups on Thursday announced they had bought nearly 10,000 acres in northern Big Sur to preserve the 10-mile stretch of mountains, old-growth redwood forest, oak woodlands and coastal terraces.

The Nature Conservancy and the Big Sur Land Trust amassed enough interim financing to buy the land from cellular telephone pioneer Craig McCaw for about $38 million. The plan is to sell it to the state and a regional park district, which will maintain it as parkland and protected wilderness.

“We are going to buy this land and manage it for wildlife and for people,” said Mary Nichols, secretary of the California Resources Agency. “It was the missing link to create a 70-mile-long wildlife corridor from the Carmel River in the north to San Luis Obispo County in the south,” she added.

The deal was announced Thursday at a news conference on the northern tip of the property, attended by a group of state officials including actor Clint Eastwood, a newly appointed state parks commissioner.

“This is the northern gateway to Big Sur,” said Bill Leahy, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Monterey project. “It’s the first thing you see when you drive down from Carmel. It continues for another 10 miles.”

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Much of the 9,898 acres rests high in the Santa Lucia Mountains that drop into the Pacific Ocean, creating possibly the most dramatic section of the state’s signature coastline.

This jigsaw-puzzle-shaped parcel, assembled one piece at time by McCaw and named the Palo Corona Ranch, will link 13 wilderness areas and parks including Point Lobos State Reserve, Garrapata State Park and the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.

As a conduit to existing parklands, conservationists said the former ranch will preserve a valuable wildlife corridor for mountain lions, bobcats and other animals.

McCaw, who founded McCaw Cellular and is a primary shareholder of Nextel Communications, has long been involved in conservation efforts. He has bought timber concessions and retired them to protect forests from logging. In 1998, he and his ex-wife, Wendy, paid to fly Keiko the killer whale to Iceland to prepare the star of the movie “Free Willy” for release into the wild.

When McCaw bought the first piece of the ranch in Big Sur in 1996 from the heirs of Stuyvesant Fish, he promised to safeguard the stands of old-growth redwoods. The Fish Ranch has its own storied history. It was the location for the movie adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Flight,” a story about a fugitive in Big Sur.

McCaw subsequently bought seven other parcels to build his ranch, with an idea that the land would eventually end up in public hands, said his spokesman, Bob Ratliffe.

“Nothing is more satisfying than to see majestic and important pieces of our country like this one preserved for generations,” McCaw said through Ratliffe.

Part of the property had been a working cattle ranch. It includes a barn and tack shed that will be preserved. “It’s in beautiful shape,” said Corey Brown, executive director of the Big Sur Land Trust. “We find very few properties in this pristine condition.”

Gov. Gray Davis on Thursday pledged $32 million toward the purchase from Proposition 40, the bond measure approved by voters in March. The Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District has committed $5 million to help buy the ranch.

The two nonprofit conservation groups said they will mount a fund-raising campaign to make up any financial shortfall and will establish an endowment to maintain the land.

Money from the state must be approved by the Legislature as part of the budget, and is subject to state-approved appraisals of the land. The final disposition of the property has not been decided. Nichols said the plan is to carve up the ranch and add parts of it to adjacent state parks.

Some of the land is likely to end up in the hands of the Monterey Peninsula park district.

Nichols said the purchase will ensure that most of the Big Sur coastline, which attracts millions of tourists a year, will never be developed.


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