CalPERS, the giant state workers pension fund, has ended several months of uncertainty by signaling to Sonoma County that it intends to move forward with a huge, controversial timber-to-vineyard conversion project near Annapolis.
Called Preservation Ranch, the project would clear up to 1,769 acres of forest for wine grapes on nearly 20,000 acres in northwestern Sonoma County.
It is said to be the largest forest conversion project for agriculture in California in generations. Currently in the study stage, it has drawn nationwide opposition from environmentalists and others concerned about impacts on water resources and wildlife, including struggling salmon and steelhead populations in the Gualala River watershed.
For years, the California Public Employees Retirement System has owned a majority stake in the project through a $200 million investment in vineyard portfolios overseen by a Napa-based vineyard management firm.
But CalPERS last year severed its ties with that firm, Premier Pacific Vineyards, and Sonoma County officials have since been looking to confirm who controls the future of Preservation Ranch.
The answer is CalPERS, state pension fund officials said last week in a letter to the county.
"As of January 1, 2012, the California Public Employees' Retirement System is the owner of Pacific Vineyards Partners LLC," Judy Alexander, CalPERS portfolio manager, wrote in the letter.
Pacific Vineyard Partners is the investment portfolio that controls landholding subsidiaries for Preservation Ranch.
The notice came as CalPERS holds exploratory talks with at least one conservation group on the possibility of selling the sprawling ranch or a conservation easement on it, sources said.
Wayne Davis, a CalPERS spokesman, confirmed the discussions but declined to say if the property was for sale.