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.
The project pushed by CalPERS called for clearing up to 1,769 acres of the 19,652-acre property for vineyards.
It became one of the hottest land-use fights in Wine Country, sparking national media coverage and a debate about the spread of vineyards into remote North Coast forests. The general issue, and Preservation Ranch in particular, has factored in local elections and triggered county efforts to strengthen local oversight of forest conversions.
The proposal was headed for what was certain to be a bruising process of hearings and public input, including a final say by the county Board of Supervisors and possible court challenges.
The mounting cost of studies -- said last year to be more than $2 million -- and the risks and controversy associated with the project likely pushed CalPERS to consider other options, sources said.
CalPERS officials declined to comment Tuesday on the sale agreement.
The transaction reflects the growing role of private groups in large deals to protect local open space, especially former commercial forests. Public agencies, while partners in those deals, are increasingly unable or unwilling to buy and manage those lands on their own.
The political ripples of the purchase could bolster the cause of environmental interests, who established a majority recently on the county's Board of Supervisors. Several environmental leaders on Tuesday greeted news of the closely guarded deal with jubilation.
"Wow," said Bill Kortum, a former Sonoma County supervisor and veteran advocate for open space and coastal protection. "What better news is there to dance to?"