Santa Rosa, CA – July 19, 2021 – This month the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (Ag + Open Space), a special district dedicated to protecting our working and natural lands forever, will transfer ownership of a significant and storied 1,290-acre Sonoma Valley property to Sonoma County Regional Parks. This land, formerly owned and managed by Ag + Open Space as Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve, will eventually open to the public as a regional park and open space preserve on Nuns Canyon Road in Glen Ellen.
“Ag + Open Space sought to conserve this property because of its amazing natural resources, significant wildlife habitat, beautiful scenic vistas, and the potential for it to become a place for the public to explore,” said First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, a member of Ag + Open Space’s Board of Directors and whose district includes the preserve. “As we know, the physical and mental health benefits of nature and the outdoors are needed now more than ever, and we are thrilled that our community will be able to enjoy this magnificent preserve forever.”
Rich in cultural history, Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve is located near the eastern border of the traditional territory of the Coast Miwok, with the Wappo to the east and Southern Pomo tribal territories to the north. In the late 1800s, Anglo-Americans and European settlers introduced ranching, dairy operations, dry farming, and mining to the region. One of the most famous former landowners was Mary Ellen Pleasant, a former slave turned civil rights leader and San Francisco entrepreneur in the late 1800s, who named the property Beltane Ranch.
Nestled in the Mayacamas mountain range, the preserve is truly a wild place that boasts a wide array of diverse ecosystems and rare plant species, including notable wildlife such as peregrine falcons and northern spotted owls. Its namesake creek supports a variety of species, including steelhead trout, foothill yellow-legged frog and California giant salamander. The iconic mountain peaks and forested slopes of the preserve are visible from Highway 12, a well-traveled designated scenic corridor.
Ag + Open Space purchased an undeveloped portion of Beltane Ranch in 2004 for $9.115 million, renaming it Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve. At the time, it was anticipated that the property would be transferred to and operated by California State Parks. However, due to budgetary constraints, State Parks was unable to accept title to the property. Ag + Open Space then developed a management plan and began to work with Regional Parks on a potential park and open space preserve that would protect its scenic and natural resources, while also providing for public recreation. Upon transfer, Regional Parks will initiate a series of guided “park preview” outings, with funding provided by Ag + Open Space, to allow the public to enjoy the preserve as Regional Parks plans for full public access, a process which typically takes three to five years. Ag + Open Space will retain a conservation easement and recreation covenant over the property in perpetuity.
“It’s extremely rewarding to see our original vision of protecting the preserve’s awe-inspiring creeks, trees, grasslands, and wildlife, while also allowing the public to explore this natural gem, come to fruition,” said Ag + Open Space General Manager Misti Arias. “Now we see that the protection of the preserve also provides our community with greater resiliency in the face of climate change and increased wildfires, and offers an opportunity to see up close how our natural landscapes adapt to and recover from wildfire.”
Although the preserve burned completely in the 2017 Nuns Fire, there has been extensive re-sprouting of shrub and hardwood species over the last few years. The preserve is also home to manzanitas that are dependent on fire to help their seeds germinate, and thousands of new manzanita seedlings have developed across the south-facing slopes since the fire. In partnership with Cal Fire and local land conservation organizations and agencies, Ag + Open Space applied for a grant to help fund shaded fuel break and forest thinning work, which is underway and has already created safer ingress/egress conditions along Nuns Canyon Road.
With the onset of climate change, it is important to protect lands that are diverse in elevation, habitats, plant communities, and microclimates to ensure wildlife have ample room for migration and adaptation in the face of rising sea levels, warming temperatures, and environmental changes. The preserve starts on the valley floor and climbs to the mountain ridge tops at around 2,000 feet. This extensive property includes a variety of soil types, habitats, and topographic features that allow for climate change adaptation.
“As you explore Nuns Canyon, the sounds of Highway 12 and outside world are replaced by the flowing waters of Calabazas Creek and spectacular diversity of habitats” said Bert Whitaker, Director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. “This wild and vibrant landscape, in such close proximity to other protected and publicly accessible lands, is significant because of the many benefits it provides to people and wildlife. Preservation of this property expands regional wildlife corridors, creates the opportunity for multi-use trails and connectivity with regional trail networks, and preserves critical natural buffer areas that reduce wildfire risks to neighboring communities.”
Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve sits in between Sugarloaf State Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park and provides a potential alignment for access to the Bay Area Ridge Trail, a 400+ mile trail system that travels through seven counties and encircles the entire San Francisco Bay Area.
Before the new park can open for full public access, Regional Parks will complete a master plan to guide the development of trails, recreational and educational uses, and stewardship of the natural resources. Public outreach for the planning process is set to begin in early 2022. Starting in fall 2021, Regional Parks will host guided “preview” outings for the public to periodically access the park and preserve.