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It has been seven years since a coalition of private and public conservation groups purchased the Jenner Headlands, putting more than 5,600 acres of stunning coastal landscape within the public’s reach. Now stewards of the land are finally closing in on a date to open the property for unsupervised exploration, likely beginning early next year.

The design for new parking and public amenities off Highway 1 has been finalized, with hopes of breaking ground this fall on the main access point into the property, which overlooks the mouth of the Russian River and the ocean just north of Jenner.

Construction should be completed three or four months after that, according to Brook Edwards, preserve manager for The Wildlands Conservancy, which owns and operates the preserve.

“I can’t wait to welcome everyone up,” Edwards said.

Planners envision the project as a gateway to the headlands and beyond — connecting visitors to 20 miles of trail and breathtaking views of the rugged Sonoma Coast, as well as to the Sonoma Land Trust’s adjoining Pole Mountain Preserve and the county’s highest coastal peak 7.5 miles away. A bit further north is a small preserve called Little Black Mountain.

The nearly 6-acre project includes spaces for 30 passenger vehicles and two school buses in a lot located where a small asphalt turnout exists now, about two miles north of Jenner.

The plans call for a day-use area with picnic tables, restroom facilities, an accessible 400-foot trail to a scenic lookout and an informational kiosk. Once the amenities are in place and the plants rooted, the public will be welcome from dawn to dusk, Edwards said.

The blueprint for public access was no small feat given the environmental sensitivity of the site, its intersection with a busy state highway, slope and drainage issues, and the need blend improvements with the landscape, organizers said.

County, state and federal agencies have weighed in on the plan, and some permit approvals are still outstanding.

“It’s frustrating to all of us that it’s taken a while to make our plans safe and as we’d like them to be, but we’re there now,” said Dan York, vice president of The Wildlands Conservancy.

The 5,630-acre preserve, formerly used for timber production and cattle grazing, was purchased in 2009 for $36 million through a coalition of land conservation agencies, including the Sonoma Land Trust and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. It remains the most expensive single land conservation deal in county history.

The property fronts nearly three miles of Highway 1, offering expansive views of the coast stretching south to Bodega Bay and Point Reyes. It protects diverse habitats for wildlife, including coastal prairie studded with rock outcroppings, oak woodland, wetland, chaparral and redwood and Douglas fir forest. Cattle still graze the land on a rotating basis and the forests are being thinned to encourage growth of large, mature trees.

Guided visits have brought up to 700 people a year to the preserve for birding expeditions and other special equestrian and cycling activities run by several local nonprofit groups, York said.

But the preserve was always intended to offer daily recreational access for the general public once amenities were in place and people could get safely onto the property from Highway 1.

The problem, in part, was finding the right design firm, York said, one that could conceive a project “representative of a sense of place out there on that beautiful coastline.”

The final design, created by Sebastopol-based Prunuske Chatham Inc., incorporates native plants and stone, filters runoff through wetland and uses landscaping to screen the lot from passing motorists.

“I have loved working on this project because it’s not just about the function of the parking lot,” said landscape architect Maggie Jensen. “It’s about the aesthetics, and it’s also about the ecological value. … The ultimate result is we’ve created something that is an enhancement to the environment.”

The Wildlands Conservancy is raising funds for the project and has financial commitments from several partners for a portion of the work, estimated to cost as much as $1.8 million, York said. The group is committed to breaking ground this year, he said.

In addition to existing trails and roads, the property will eventually host a segment of the California Coastal Trail meant to run the full length of the state. The property may even have pack-in campground at some point, Edwards said.

“Once you get up to the top part of the Jenner Headlands, you have views of the whole Sonoma Coast,” he said. “It’s just spectacular. Everyone that comes up here, they just remark on the scenery and how they want to come back.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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