A national conservation group has reached an agreement to buy nearly 20,000 acres of timberland in northwestern Sonoma County, a move that derails the long-disputed, forest-to-vineyards conversion project pushed by CalPERS, the giant state workers pension fund.
The $24.5 million purchase of the so-called Preservation Ranch, to be completed by the end of May, is led by The Conservation Fund, based in Virginia. It would contribute up to $6 million toward the purchase.
Funding partners include the California Coastal Conservancy, which could contribute up to $10 million, Sonoma County's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which could add up to $4 million to the deal, and the Sonoma Land Trust.
It would be the largest conservation purchase by acreage in county history and one of the largest along the North Coast in years.
"It's a big, big, big deal," said Bill Keene, general manager of the county's Open Space District. The property, located near Annapolis, spans a vast and rugged landscape of second- and third-growth redwood and Douglas fir, oak woodlands and salmon and steelhead streams.
Keene called it "a critical piece of land for us to protect."
Public access could result from the deal, but the property would remain in private ownership and on the tax roll.
The Conservation Fund owns and manages 55,000 acres of forest in Mendocino County and would use the new property for sustainable timber production and possibly for the sale of carbon credits.
The purchase would eliminate the threat of subdivision for rural estates and commercial vineyard development. It also would put greater focus on forest health and wildlife habitat restoration, said Chris Kelly, California program director for The Conservation Fund.
After the sale, the group would own nearly 75,000 acres on the North Coast -- "the largest permanently protected working forest in California," according to Kelly.