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Preservation Ranch officially preserved

Nearly 20,000 acres of remote forest once targeted for vineyard development in remote northwest Sonoma County will be set aside as timberland and wildlife habitat under a landmark conservation deal that closed Friday.

The property commonly called Preservation Ranch near the town of Annapolis is now owned by The Conservation Fund, a national group that specializes in forest protection. It led the $24.5 million purchase — aided by $14 million in state and Sonoma County open space funds.

The conservation deal, the largest by acreage in Sonoma County history, secures the southernmost piece of a 58,000-acre former commercial timber holding — now entirely owned by The Conservation Fund — and assures a vast area of the rugged coast range will remain largely undeveloped and wild, officials said.

"It's like getting to the summit," said Chris Kelly, The Conservation Fund's California program director, who confirmed the sale was finalized Friday.

The acquisition was quietly negotiated last year and made public in February. It puts a quick end to one of the county's biggest land-use fights, a dispute that embodied the broader battle over the spread of Wine Country into North Coast forests.

CalPERS, the giant state workers pension fund, has controlled the 19,645-acre property for nearly a decade. Through a Napa vineyard development firm, it backed a highly controversial proposal to clear nearly 1,800 acres of redwood, fir and oak forest for premium wine grapes.

Local environmentalists and others rallied for years against the project, generating significant political opposition and regulatory hurdles that ultimately may have forced CalPERS to reconsider.

"We were going to take this to the streets," said Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River, one of several local and national environmental groups that led the charge against the project.

Poehlmann hailed the deal and the "rest and recovery" he hoped it would provide for the former commercial timberland.

"These forests have done their duty," he said.

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