The future of Preservation Ranch, a long-contested swath of forest that sprawls across northwestern Sonoma County, could be decided this week.
Protection of the 19,652-acre property hinges on a grant of up to $10 million in voter-approved bond money overseen by the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency.
The funding is at the heart of a $24.5 million purchase agreement for the property, located outside Annapolis and owned by CalPERS, the giant state workers pension fund.
The land would add to a vast expanse of adjoining forest already protected north of the Mendocino-Sonoma County border, creating an unbroken 90-square-mile wildland corridor along the rugged coast range.
"This would fulfill a goal we established more than 10 years ago," said Chris Kelly, California program director for The Conservation Fund, the Virginia-based group that would own the property and manage it for sustainable timber harvest and the sale of carbon credits.
The deal, first reported in February, includes up to $4 million in Sonoma County open space funds and $10.5 million in private funds and is set to close May 31. It would be the largest conservation purchase by acreage in Sonoma County history and one of the largest along the North Coast in years.
It aims to shield the land from a controversial forest-to-vineyards project controlled by Cal-PERS.
It would also reassemble what was once a single commercial timber holding spanning roughly 58,000 acres in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The Conservation Fund purchased the adjoining 38,000 acres in Mendocino County in 2004 and 2011.
The 2004 purchase was funded partly by $6 million from the Coastal Conservancy and $4 million from the state Wildlife Conservation Board.
State funding is also the linchpin of the latest deal. The funding requires consideration of public access opportunities on the property and spells out other conditions.
The Coastal Conservancy board is set to meet Thursday, and supporters say they are optimistic about the outcome.
"We're going to make our strongest pitch and let them know how important this project is to the county," said Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who helped initiate the sale agreement.
State officials say they've heard no opposition to the funding proposal and instead have amassed a stack of endorsement letters from groups, government bodies, elected leaders and other individuals that totals more than 100 pages.
Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy, called it a "classic" project for the agency, aiding beleaguered coho salmon in the Gualala River watershed and expanding a refuge that could help other wildlife and plants adapt to climate change.
The deal would derail the Cal-PERS-backed proposal to clear up to 1,769 acres of forest for vineyards -- a project that sparked one of the hottest land-use fights in Wine Country, drawing national media coverage and fueling debate about the spread of vineyards into remote North Coast forests.
The Conservation Fund would contribute $6 million and secure up to $3.5 million in financing for the deal. Sonoma Land Trust, the private nonprofit, would contribute $1 million through a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Sonoma County's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District is set to add up to $4 million to the deal in a decision early next month. It would retain a conservation easement that eliminates development rights on the property.