In its biggest expansion in decades, Yosemite National Park on Wednesday broadened its western boundary by adding 400 acres of lush meadowlands edged with cedars and ponderosa pines that provide habitat for some of California's most threatened wildlife.
The nonprofit Trust for Public Land purchased Ackerson Meadow from private owners for $2.3 million this year and donated it Wednesday to the National Park Service, marking Yosemite National Park's largest addition of untrammeled wilderness in seven decades. Yosemite now stands at roughly 750,000 acres.
The meadows, home to the federally endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and a geographically isolated and genetically distinct clan of roughly 200 great gray owls, were spared by the Rim fire that scorched a huge swath of the surrounding Sierra Nevada forests in 2013.
"The generous donation of Ackerson Meadow will preserve critical meadow habitat that is home to a number of state and federally listed protected species," Yosemite National Park Supt. Don Neubacher said.
"This meadow is a remarkable gift to the American people, coming at a historic time as we celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service."
Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land, said, "Donating the largest addition since 1949 to one of the world's most famous parks is a great way to celebrate the 100th birthday of our National Park Service – and honor John Muir's original vision for the park."
The donation had been a conservation priority for three decades, said David Sutton, the trust's California land conservation director.
"The Rim fire burned around this property and nearly jeopardized the project."
The announcement comes several weeks after President Obama visited Yosemite, where he touted the natural beauty while also warning about the need to protect the park from the ravages of global warming.
It also comes after three Southern California sites were designated national monuments this year — Sand to Snow, Mojave Trails and Castle Mountains. Those areas are in Riverside and San Bernardino counties and connect hundreds of miles of the region's protected wildlands.
Complicating negotiations to acquire Ackerson Meadow, "the former land owners thought it was worth more than the appraisers we hired," Sutton said. "But we were patient. No one can drive past this property without stopping and saying, 'Wow. Isn't that gorgeous?'"
Robin and Nancy Wainwright, who owned the Yosemite land since 2006, sold it to the trust.
The Wainwrights "are an amazing couple," Sutton said. "After the Rim fire, we asked for a one-year extension in negotiations, and they agreed. They were also approached by other parties interested in acquiring the land.
"Ultimately, however, they wanted to see it become part of Yosemite."
Robin Wainwright told the Associated Press they lost a "few hundred thousand dollars" passing up a lucrative offer from a developer to build a resort.
The donated land is composed of three connected meadows, nourished by a perennial creek and inhabited by bear, deer, coyotes and other animals. The great gray owls that live there are the world's largest by length. The acreage is also home to more than 100 species of plants, park officials said.
Funds to buy the property came from several contributors, including $1.53 million from the Trust for Public Land and $520,000 from the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy, with additional support from National Park Trust and American Rivers.
"The original Yosemite boundary plans of 1890 included Ackerson Meadow, so it is exciting to finally have this important place protected," said Yosemite Conservancy President Frank Dean. "The purchase supports the long-term health of the meadow and its wild inhabitants, and creates opportunities for visitors to experience a beautiful Sierra meadow."
5:51 p.m.: This article was updated with a staff-written version.
3:09 p.m.: This article was updated with more details on the land.
2:45 p.m.: This article was updated with background and new details.