Mendocino County environmentalists and historical preservationists are nearing completion of a complex deal that would permanently protect more than 4,600 acres of the historic Ridgewood Ranch, final resting place of the famed racehorse Seabiscuit.
Nestled in an oak- and redwood-studded valley about eight miles south of Willits, the ranch became a beacon in the 1940s for thousands of Seabiscuit fans who made the pilgrimage 130 miles north from San Francisco to see the legendary horse.
Though the thoroughbred died and was buried in an undisclosed location on the ranch in 1949, tourists still turn off U.S. Highway 101 to visit the custom-built stud barn and other ranch facilities where Seabiscuit lived out his days.
This year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Ridgewood Ranch as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States.
Now, through a unique patchwork of government and private grants, plus a public fundraising campaign, the threat of the ranch being broken up and sold for development is fading.
Most of the 5,000-acre ranch would be preserved permanently under conservation easements that would be purchased by the Mendocino Land Trust, in Willits. The easements would protect the ranch’s natural resources and allow sustainable forestry and ranching to continue, according to James Bernard, the trust’s executive director.
The estimated value of the conservation easements on 4,636 acres of the ranch is $13 million, according to Bernard. The ranch’s owner -- the tiny Golden Rule Church Assn., whose 25 members live there -- has agreed to donate $7 million of the total, leaving $6 million to be underwritten by a number of government and private grants, as well as a public campaign to raise $1 million.
The trust has matched various grants to cover the costs of easements for different types of terrain and land uses on the ranch. For example, the California Farmland Conservancy Program, run by the state Department of Conservation, has agreed to provide $1 million to acquire an agricultural conservation easement.
Likewise, the private nonprofit Save the Redwoods League last month authorized $300,000 of $500,000 needed to conserve two acres of old-growth and 17 acres of second-growth redwood stands on the ranch.
“We’re trying to match funding sources with the mosaic of ecosystems on the ranch,” Bernard said last week during a tour of the undulating hills and valley in which the ranch sits. Were it not for the fact that the Golden Rule Church continues to provide good land stewardship while running the ranch, many of the grants would not be available, he noted.
Situated at the upper end of the Ukiah Valley about halfway between Ukiah and Willits on U.S. 101, the land originally was home to the northern Pomo Indians. In the 1850s, a white man named Capt. Walker and his family settled in the valley and began raising cattle.
Rench Angle, who became the second owner, was the first white to hold title to what would later become the Ridgewood Ranch. Over about 25 years, he assembled a 16,600-acre spread, paying an average of $3.25 an acre for much of the land.
William Van Arsdale, a wealthy San Franciscan, bought the ranch in 1903, and two years later developed a spring-fed water system that piped water through a 340,000-gallon tank and through a Pelton water wheel to generate electricity for the ranch.
“Most people don’t know it, but this ranch was probably among the first in Mendocino County to have electricity,” said Tracy Livingston, one of the Golden Rule Church’s ranch residents and president of the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation.
In 1921, millionaire San Francisco automobile magnate Charles Howard bought the ranch. Within a few years, he had transformed it into a thoroughbred facility unlike any other in the state.
“It was here in 1939 at Ridgewood Ranch that an improbable winning trio -- owner Charles Howard, jockey Red Pollard and trainer Tom Smith -- nursed the ailing racehorse back to health after a serious injury,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s description of the ranch. “Seabiscuit’s recuperation set the stage for an electrifying blaze-of-glory career finish at Santa Anita Racetrack that captured Depression-era America’s imagination.”
Today, a restored stud barn in which Seabiscuit spent much of his retirement is the centerpiece of about 20 buildings and sites that survive from the years that Howard owned the ranch.
The Church of the Golden Rule bought the ranch in 1962 from two lumbermen who had acquired it from the Howard estate. The church supported itself by running a dairy and a print shop, among other operations. Today, the ranch is home to a small charter school, a mobile home park and a 200-head cattle operation.
In the 1960s, church members began reseeding logged areas with thousands of Ponderosa pines. In the 1990s, they began stream restoration work on two local creeks, planting tens of thousands of willows and other species to stabilize the streams. Today, the church supports the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation, which is working with the Mendocino Land Trust to preserve the ranch, Livingston said.
“Our goal through all this is to make this ranch a living museum that is a working ranch and a preserve” that will outlive the church members, he said.
From an environmental perspective, the ranch -- nearly eight square miles in size -- represents the last large parcel along Highway 101 in the county that can be protected as a unit, according to the land trust’s Bernard.
Natural resources on the ranch include five miles of fish-bearing creeks, more than 57 miles of seasonal creeks, rare seasonal pools, 2,250 acres of oak woodlands, 90 acres of prime farmland, 600 acres of grazing land and 900 acres of forestland that is selectively cut for sustainability, he said.
It is also home to 95 species of wildlife, including mountain lions, black bears, lynxes and gray foxes. Birders have spotted 134 species, including bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, great American egrets and ospreys, he said.
Plans call for increased public access to the property.