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The hillsides above the seaside hamlet of Jenner offer an awe-inspiring view this time of year.

Far below, if you fold back the blanket of fog, California gray whales are sending tell-tale spouts of ocean spray into the air. Above, red-tailed hawks rise on thermal currents while towering redwoods on the ridgetops to the east stand watch.

The vantage point is Jenner Headlands, 5,600 acres set aside in 2009 in the largest conservation purchase in Sonoma County history.

The former timber property and grazing land could have been developed into ranchettes, but $36 million in public and private funds prevented that.

The deal proposed a wildlife refuge and recreational amenity for the public that would add to other protected public land in the area, including Sonoma Coast State Park just to the south.

Such multipurpose projects have proved difficult to realize in recent years, weighed down by funding shortages or the tug-of-war between granting public access and ensuring protection of natural resources.

But the managers overseeing Jenner Headlands say they've found a balance between those priorities and are ready to begin shaping the property's future.

"What we're talking about is a healing process out here," said Brook Edwards, Jenner Headlands project manager for Sonoma Land Trust, the nonprofit group that owns and manages the property along with The Wildlands Conservancy.

Sonoma County's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, one of several public agencies to support the purchase, holds a conservation easement over the acreage.

Sonoma Land Trust and its partners have spent the past two years studying the property and soliciting feedback from scientists and the general public on how it should be managed.

A plan they released recently is intended to serve as a blueprint for the next 10 years. It envisions a hands-on approach, including logging, grazing and stream restoration projects to improve forest and grassland health and boost steelhead and coho salmon populations.

The activity promises to have a lighter touch than former commercial uses of the property, land trust officials said.

"Our goal is solely ecological," Edwards said.

The plan also calls for increasingly more of the property to be opened to the public. Currently, only guided walks are offered, sticking mostly to a 5-mile loop traversing the grass hills that bound the western edge. That trail could be opened to unsupervised access within two years, after completion of a proposed 30-car parking lot and restrooms off Highway 1.

Greater public access to the inland, forested sections of the property could come within five years and offer opportunities for mountain bikers and equestrians.

But finding staging areas for those users remains a problem because the property has few places it touches public roads, especially on the eastern side, near Duncans Mills.

The land trust is talking with landowners in the area about increasing access using existing roads, but those moves -- if they happen -- and other plans to develop walk-in campsites could be as much as a decade away.

Trail advocates are pushing for a tighter timeline. Still, they have praised the general approach taken in the management plan.

"Things never go fast enough for those of us who want to get out there," said Ken Wells, executive director of the Sonoma County Trails Council. "But when you have new lands like this, there are two steps. There's the resources and then the recreation. And it's important to do it that way."

The management plan spells out projects to be undertaken annually on both resources and recreation improvements through 2016.

To limit the spread of non-native grasses in the 1,500 acres of coastal prairie, managers plan to switch to a rotational grazing schedule that would pull livestock off the rangeland at times to benefit wildlife.

To reduce wildfire risk, managers have proposed logging small trees and underbrush alongside some of the property's 48-mile road network. A similar selective treatment favoring the development of old-growth stands is to be used on a wider swath of the 3,100 acres of second- and third-growth redwood and Douglas fir forest.

An environmental education program, a docent program, volunteer patrols and design and construction of a segment of the California Coastal Trail also are to be launched within the next four years.

Conservation officials say the property could be a model, showing how to rehabilitate a large, highly altered landscape while promoting it as a public destination.

"We're hitting a milestone here," said Bill Keene, general manager of the Open Space District, which contributed $9.15 million to the property's purchase.

The taxpayer-supported district has wrestled with setting priorities for its other lands and purchases. The process of late has involved some standoffs between public access advocates and others who want more focus on protection of private agricultural lands.

Discussion of the future of Jenner Headlands has sparked little of that public debate.

Keene, for his part, said he thought the plan struck the right balance, calling it a "great step."

"It's going to help us preserve natural resources and provide public access," he said.

He mentioned specifically the opportunities for equestrians and mountain bikers, the latter group a visibly growing presence on the region's public lands.

"There's just a lot of possibilities," Keene said.

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

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