Preservation Ranch deal could get OK Thursday

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.

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