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200-acre Fitzsimmons Ranch added to Sonoma County’s Hood Mountain Regional Park

A wide expanse of land that stretches above Sonoma Valley between Hood Mountain and Bald Mountain remains splashed with brilliant green and clusters of bright wildflowers, with spring-fed mountain meadows seeping moisture, despite the drought.

Though woods and chaparral at its edges remain charred by last fall’s Glass fire and the Nuns fire three years before that, this corner of the Mayacamas range conveys an instant and deep sense of serenity and solitude.

Steep slopes rising up above surrounding hills evoke idyllic visions of scampering mountain goats or Maria von Trapp, her petticoats twirling, bursting into song about mountains filled with choruses from past millennia.

And though it’s not nice to tease, the 200-acre ranch where all this splendor exists will one day be accessible to the general public as part of Hood Mountain Regional Park — just not for a while yet.

The nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust closed escrow April 21 on the century-old Fitzsimmons Ranch and immediately conveyed it to the Sonoma County Regional Park system.

But the property, which lies between the regional park and neighboring Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, is accessible only along a steep mess of an unpaved road through locked gates and some severely burned landscape. It’s part of a mosaic of recent and possible future acquisitions at both parks that officials hope to incorporate and plan out simultaneously, for maximum interconnectedness, said Steve Ehret, Regional Parks’ planning manager.

In addition, there is hope of routing the unfinished 550-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail across the property, providing potential opportunities for backpacking, as well as distance hiking, Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker said.

“Hood Mountain keeps growing and connecting, and more people keep coming to it,” Whitaker said of the 2,000-acre park.

Still, the new addition, with its 36-acre sweep of undulating grassland below the ridgeline, “is so different from anything else you have in the rest of the complex,” he said.

The L-shaped property rises from about 1,500 feet to 2,521 feet at its peak, near the divide between Sonoma and Napa counties, providing views that take in Point Reyes, San Francisco Bay and beyond.

Though its use for recreation is some years off, its preservation provides immediate environmental benefits.

Only lightly used over the years, the property provides high-value, intact habitat for an array of plant and animal life in a region particularly known for natural diversity, experts say. It includes serpentine areas that support rare species, as well as the headwaters to two tributaries of Sonoma Creek, including Bear Creek and one unnamed waterway, which provide avenues for migration within the property and beyond its boundaries.

The ranch also fills a “hole” in a large swath of protected properties at the core of an expansive wildlife corridor extending across undeveloped landscapes from the Blue Ridge Mountains and Lake Berryessa in east Napa County, over the Mayacamas and down to Marin County.

Elevation gradients also provide opportunities for climate resilience, allowing species to seek higher grounds as the planet warms, while upper mountain meadows that host sedges and other water-loving plants act like sponges, storing filtered water and carbon, and adding critical value to the land, said John McCaull, the land trust’s acquisitions director.

“This is the epitome of wild land, which is rare to come by in our county anymore,” McCaull said in a written statement. “We are very grateful to this family for keeping the land intact and undeveloped — and to their commitment to making sure the land becomes part of the park for everyone to enjoy.”

It has been held since 1912 by the family of Max Arthur and Maud Williams Fitzsimmons, who homesteaded the ranch after moving west from Kansas. They built a small cabin there and raised a crop of turkeys before earning a land grant the following year, said one of their granddaughters, Marda Mitchell Gallagher, of Santa Rosa.

Maud Fitzsimmons, left alone during the day while her husband rode horseback to work in town and back, found the remote landscape lonely, prompting the couple to move to Santa Rosa once they had earned rights to the land, Gallagher, 74, said.

But they held onto the ranch, and Max Fitzsimmons went up several days a week — “every day he could,” around work, first in retail and, later, as a Santa Rosa city parks employee, she said.

Gallagher’s mother also loved tagging along and riding her own horse on the property, as did Gallagher herself. She and her siblings sold the ranch to the land trust for $1.13 million.

Though cattle have grazed there over the decades, it was never too many, so as not to overgraze the land, Gallagher said. Her husband and brother-in-law did most of the work, heading to the ranch once a week to feed and check on the livestock.

But when flames exploded around the North Bay in October 2017, the Nuns fire swept through the Fitzsimmons Ranch, burning a small cabin the family used and most of the fencing, which meant the cattle had to be sold.

The Glass fire incinerated all the last fence posts and the barn, took the last posts, as well as the barn.

Gallagher said she and her brother and sister had long imagined they might sell the ranch to the land trust, as none of their offspring was interested in continuing the work and they wanted it to be preserve and enjoyed by others. The Glass fire merely hastened the decision. The conservation deal came the help of private donations from local supporters, including Mary Love, Jake Warner and Toni Ihara, as well as Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The Land Trust also facilitated the acquisition of the 162-acre Santa Rosa Headwaters addition to the park in 2017, and the 40-acre Santa Rosa Creek Redwoods in 2018. The group is working on the McCormick Ranch, located just north of Fitzsimmons Ranch, which is eventually to become part of the regional park.

Gallagher said the ranch has always been a great place to escape to, even though it was so nearby.

“I know when my husband would take friends up, they couldn’t believe that a place like that existed that close to Santa Rosa — that you could be so removed from all the things that are going on in the world and just be at peace up there. And even though it’s only an hour away, you are just so removed from everything. It’s just a peaceful, serene place.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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