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Audubon Canyon Ranch, a conservation group celebrating its 50th year, got a significant birthday present this week, one that nearly doubles the size of its holdings in Sonoma County.

The organization has added 1,620 acres next to land it helps manage in the Mayacamas Mountains northeast of Healdsburg, a rugged, remote area that is home to unique plants and animals.

"This is exciting. It will stretch our organizations' footprint considerably," said Executive Director Scott Feierabend.

"It's really wild and pristine land up here," he said during a recent tour of the property off Pine Flat Road.

The chaparral, oaks and mixed evergreen forest stretch from the 1,000- to 3,000-foot elevation overlooking Alexander and Knights valleys.

The property was part of the Mayacamas Mountain Audubon Sanctuary and, takes in the late-1800s mining boom town of Pine Flat, which once had a population of around 2,000 but is gone with hardly a trace as the result of periodic fires that sweep the area.

But nature quickly rejuvenates the land, which provides habitat for rare animals, including black bear, mountain lion, golden eagles and other sensitive species from the American Badger to the Northwestern Pond Turtle.

Ownership and an endowment to manage the 1,620 acres transferred Friday from the National Audubon Society, which was given most of the land in 1994, to the Audubon Canyon Ranch, a separate though similarly named organization.

It anticipates being more hands-on with scientific research, management and protection.

"We will play a much more active role. There's a whole set of skills and abilities we want to bring to the preserve," Feierabend said.

Audubon Canyon Ranch since 2009 has been involved in the management of the adjacent 1,750-acre Modini Ingalls Ecological Preserve. It has a "forever wild" easement on it that was purchased by the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District.

It will become the eventual bequest to Audubon Canyon Ranch of longtime residents Jim Modini, who died last year, and his wife Shirley, 89.

"Here we've got intact thousands and thousands of contiguous acres. It's some unusual habitat that will provide opportunities to learn more," said biologist Sherry Adams.

Audubon Canyon Ranch has completed a natural resources management plan for the Modini property that includes a vegetation map, biological assessments, such as amphibian and breeding bird inventory, and a study of the rare plants that grow on the hostile soil conditions of the serpentine outcrops.

"It's a bio-diversity hot spot," Adams said of the serpentine soils. "It's important to protect these places."

There is also monitoring of invasive species.

A similar natural resources plan will be developed for its newly added, now slightly renamed "Mayacamas Sanctuary."

Future mountain lion studies also are a possibility.

Nature hikes and bird watching field trips that have been sponsored by the Madrone Audubon Society will continue to be offered to the public.

"We love that property, believe me," said Garrison Frost, spokesman for the National Audubon Society. "It makes so much more sense to have it with Audubon Canyon Ranch, make it part of their holding already and have it integrated with the work they're already doing."

While the two sanctuaries are a haven for wildlife and plants, they also create expansive views for anyone who takes the single-lane Pine Flat Road through the property.

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Read more stories about Coffey Park’s recovery here

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"There's a human dimension to this as well, the spiritual as well as the aesthetic," Feierabend said as he gazed out over untouched green canyons and bucolic valleys.

With other open space properties nearby, including the McCord property and Santa Angelina Ranch, there are about 12,000 acres of habitat in the Mayacamas protected under conservation easements, according to ACR publicist Paula Maxfield.

That number is bolstered even more by thousands of adjacent acres owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The Audubon Canyon Ranch has other preserves in Sonoma and Marin counties. They include the 535-acre Bouverie Preserve near Glen Ellen, and the 500-acre Cypress Grove Research Center in Marshall along the shores of Tomales Bay.

The organization's protected lands also include the 1,000-acre Martin Griffin Preserve, one of the largest Great Egret and Great Blue Heron nesting sites on the West Coast. Formerly known as the Bolinas Lagoon Preserve of Audubon Canyon Ranch, it was renamed in honor of physician and environmentalist Martin "Marty" Griffin, who played a pivotal role in protecting the section of Marin coast.

More than 6,000 Bay Area school children visit the two preserves each year and there is an active training program involving hundreds of docents.

Because of the relatively isolated nature of the Mayacamas and the narrowness of Pine Flat Road, it will be a challenge to bring school kids to the site.

"In the long term, we want to create a robust educational program, similar to our other preserves," Feierabend said.

There will be research opportunities for local, regional and perhaps national institutions, with the aim of maintaining it for untold generations.

"This land will be protected in perpetuity long after you and I are gone and our children are gone," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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