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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.

The public funding has raised the question of public access. Visits are likely to be supervised or run through a permit program because of a number of obstacles, officials said Tuesday.

Aside from the remote location -- the property's core is about 90 minutes by car from Cloverdale, resulting in management issues -- a main problem is the private ownership of Kelly Road, the only thoroughfare in the area. Under an agreement with the county, it provides a public route off Annapolis Road only as far as the county's Soda Springs Reserve, a 40-acre park adjoining Preservation Ranch.

Representatives of the Kelly Road ownership group signaled in a letter to the Coastal Conservancy that any sale would not change matters in their eyes. County and state officials said they largely agreed and directed the Conservation Fund to explore ways to provide public access through the Soda Springs Reserve.

Kelly, the group's California director, said a range of activities, including hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking, could be possible.

Conservation advocates said public access would build stewardship and support for open space.

"You can't love something if you don't know it and have access to it," said Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River, which opposed the vineyard proposal.

The deal would grant the Coastal Conservancy a share of net revenue from timber harvests and carbon offset sales from the property, after annual management and restoration costs are met.

The money would be used for conservation projects along the California coast, officials said.

The Conservation Fund has a similar revenue-sharing agreement with the state agency in Mendocino County, where the group owns and manages 54,000 acres of forest.

The proposed $10 million grant for Preservation Ranch comes from a 2002 voter-approved bond for water, park and coastal conservation projects.

The grant allows the Conservation Fund to sell three parcels, including an existing 17-acre vineyard on the property that was appraised at over $2 million. Its sale could recoup a majority of the financing costs, Kelly said.

The other two parcels are non-contiguous, with the main property on the north and west sides and total about 1,040 acres. Subdivision and forest conversions would be banned under any new owner and development would be restricted to a designated building envelope, officials said. The Coastal Conservancy would retain final say over any sale.

The provision raised some eyebrows among advocates.

"The issue of lands being sold to facilitate the deal is of concern and interest to us," said Poehlmann.

Officials stressed that any sale would be conservation-oriented.

"These are not sacrificial parcels that are going to be used to pay off debt," Kelly said. "They're going to look like the rest of the ranch. We just might not own them."

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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