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Jim Modini dies at 94; preserved Alexander Valley ranch


Jim Modini, who traced his roots to the earliest Sonoma County settlers and ensured that the natural legacy of his family's history would forever be preserved as an Alexander Valley wildlife sanctuary, died Saturday. He was 94.

The Sonoma County native and his wife, Shirley, lived their entire married life on a 1,725-acre Pine Flat Road ranch handed down through four generations of Modini's family.

In 2000, they sold the property to the county Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District as a "forever wild" easement for $1 million. Then in 2009, they donated it to Audubon Canyon Ranch, a preservation group that also manages the Bolinas Lagoon and Cypress Grove sanctuaries in Marin County and Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen.

In a 2009 interview, Modini said, "I haven't got nearly the things done I meant to do, but protecting the ranch is done."

For decades, that had been his passion and goal.

"He'd go into Santa Rosa and Windsor and see all the subdivisions, and it would drive him crazy, &amp;&lsquo;Where's it going to stop?'<TH>" said Gary Wilson, Modini's tax accountant and a friend for 50 years.

"He said, &amp;&lsquo;My place is going to be set aside, no development, for the creatures and critters that crawl upon it,'<TH>" Wilson said.

The land, northeast of Healdsburg in the Mayacmas Mountain range, is "impressively wild," Skip Schwartz, then the preservation group's executive director, said at the time.

Hereford cattle and sheep graze across the ranch, with its pastures of native grass, sprawling oak woodlands and cold-water creeks in which run endangered salmon.

"Our scientists feel like they stepped back in time when they go there," Schwartz said.

The Open Space District easement prohibits building on the land and agricultural uses, such as logging or vineyards.

That ensures it will remain in the same pristine condition as when Modini's family first homesteaded it in 1867, although poles and transmission lines carrying electricity from The Geysers tell of the passage of time.

James Lawrence Modini Jr. was born Sept. 22, 1917, in Sonoma, where his grandfather owned the Garibaldi Hotel, but his father ran the ranch, not far from a flourishing Pine Flat quicksilver mine.

Modini attended Healdsburg High School, as did his future wife, Jean Shirley Nye, who was five years younger. He graduated in the mid-1930s and went to work on the ranch.

After being drafted, he served in the Coast Guard in World War II, assigned to a Pacifica-based beach patrol, riding the coastline on horseback to scout for enemy submarines.

He and Shirley Nye married during the war in Reno, and upon the war's end they moved to Alexander Valley, inheriting the ranch soon after.

The couple took out the only loan they ever owed to pay inheritance taxes. And Modini took a job to pay it off, managing cattle at the old Gauer Ranch, now owned by wine magnate Jess Jackson's estate, while Shirley Modini managed their own sheep.

In their 68 years of marriage, the Modini left their ranch for a total of 10 days.

"They loved their life there, they loved their land, they loved each on a way that you rarely see, and they just never saw a any reason to leave," said Judy Johnston, a neighbor and a co-trustee for the couple's estate.

The couple, who had no children or heirs, were warm and welcoming and enjoyed their social life. But they lived simply.

They used, Johnston said, the same plates, pots and pans as they had in the 1950s.

"They love those things and they're happy with them," Johnston said. "They're just not consumers in the way we're trained to be these days."

The couple's sale of their land to the Open Space District was criticized by some because of the price, the land's remoteness, which reduced development pressures, and requirements that sharply limited public access.

But Modini was secure in his decision.

"It didn't bother him," said John Brazil, a friend since 1956. "It kept the country the way it belongs."

Johnston said the couple never spent the money they received. It's to be used by the Audubon Ranch Canyon for its work preserving the land.

Modini, who is survived by his wife, died at his ranch.

Services are private.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.