Starting high up on the western slope of the Mayacmas Mountains, Stuart Creek drains a swath of Wine Country that remains mostly wild.
Mountain lions, bobcats, foxes and deer, along with other creatures, use the creek as a pathway across Sonoma Valley, moving from the rugged mountains in the east or from the wooded flanks of Sonoma Mountain to the west.
Now plans are under way to protect and restore much of the creek's length as a corridor for those migrating species, including the once-numerous steelhead trout.
It's an idea that began years ago and has picked up steam as housing and vineyard development have expanded in the valley along Highway 12.
Stuart Creek bisects the highway just south of the Arnold Drive intersection. The wide, natural-bottomed culvert makes it one of the few good places where wildlife can safely cross the busy roadway by passing under it.
A series of recent land acquisitions in the area by the nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust and pending projects to remove barriers in the creek and along its banks are geared toward preserving what conservationists say is a critical link in the regional ecosystem.
Such links are seen as increasingly important for wildlife that will have to move and adapt with climate change, scientists say.
"It provides us with the opportunity to do something that is really lasting," said Tony Nelson, project manager with the land trust.
The private organization in August purchased an undeveloped 14-acre property on the west side of Highway 12, across from its 234-acre Glen Oaks Ranch. It has protected two smaller creekside parcels downstream, totaling just over 3.5 acres, and is also working to purchase 40 acres of chaparral and woodlands at the creek's headwaters, just west of the Napa County line.
Together with other protected acreage, including the neighboring 535-acre Bouverie Preserve owned by Audubon Canyon Ranch, the deals have sewn up 50 percent of the watershed and provided direct access to 2.5 miles of Stuart Creek.