Grand Canyon-esque views of the Eel River canyon at Lone Pine Ranch, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Trinity County. A $25 million purchase by the Wildlands Conservancy of the ranch, owned since the 1940s by financial titan Dean Witter and his descendants, is the latest link in a planned string of 10 preserves spanning 110 miles along the Eel River for boaters and hikers. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

A closer look at the $25 million Eel River Canyon preserve set to become California’s newest wildland park

COVELO — The Grand Canyon of the Eel River, a vast, seldom-seen wildland, unfolds before a visitor’s eyes from a knoll at 3,200 feet, the silvery waterway snaking north through the Coast Ranges of Mendocino and Trinity County as a red-tailed hawk glides effortlessly below.

Teeming with wildlife — including elusive Roosevelt elk, bears, bobcats, feral pigs, bald eagles and mountain lions — it is a realm few Californians have seen or even know about.

It is also a treasure to conservationists, who are applauding The Wildlands Conservancy’s recent $25 million purchase of a 26,600-acre ranch — completing the first link of its Emerald Necklace, a chain of 10 preserves open to the public and spanning 110 miles of the Eel River from Mendocino County to the Pacific Ocean estuary.

“This is something to celebrate. It’s been a long time coming,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose North Coast district takes in the huge ranch, a sliver of the sprawling Eel River watershed that drains five counties.

“The vision has been in place for a long time to try to unify this stretch of land under a common conservation ownership,” he said.

When large ranches like those along the Eel River change hands, they “often get broken up and sold off,” said Huffman, who chairs the House Water, Ocean and Wildlife subcommittee.

The Wildlife Conservation Board, a state agency that contributed nearly $15 million to the ranch deal, considered it “one of our keystone projects” in 2021, said Rebecca Fris, the board’s assistant executive director.

“It’s really important to have connectivity over the landscape,” she said. “To me as an ecologist this is the way to go.”

The Eel River and its tributaries comprise the third largest watershed in California, spanning more than 3,500 square miles — larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Calling the river “home to dozens of endangered species and rare wildlife,” Peter Galvin, co-founder and director of programs for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the conservancy’s “heroic and visionary efforts … will be appreciated for generations to come.”

Dry Lake takes on an almost alpine like appearance Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 at Lone Pine Ranch in Trinity County. A $25 million purchase by the Wildlands Conservancy of the Ranch, owned since the 1940s by financial titan Dean Witter and his descendants, includes 26,600 acres and views of the Eel River canyon, oak wild lands and forested knolls. The Conservancy’s purchase of the ranch is the latest link in a planned string of 10 preserves spanning 110 miles along the Eel River for boaters and hikers. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Dry Lake takes on an almost alpine like appearance Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 at Lone Pine Ranch in Trinity County. A $25 million purchase by the Wildlands Conservancy of the Ranch, owned since the 1940s by financial titan Dean Witter and his descendants, includes 26,600 acres and views of the Eel River canyon, oak wild lands and forested knolls. The Conservancy’s purchase of the ranch is the latest link in a planned string of 10 preserves spanning 110 miles along the Eel River for boaters and hikers. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Galvin’s nonprofit contributed $1 million toward the conservancy’s acquisition of the property, formerly known as the Lone Pine Ranch, and owned since the 1940s by financial titan Dean Witter and his descendants.

It has been rebranded as the Eel River Canyon Preserve, and its untrammeled expanse is awe inspiring. It is more than five times the size of Trione-Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa.

The conservancy, founded in 1995, owns and operates the largest nonprofit nature preserve system in California with 22 locations encompassing 190,000 acres, including Jenner Headlands Preserve on the Sonoma Coast.

If visitors to the conservancy’s lands “are more inspired and insightful about life, as well as their own lives, and more dedicated to protecting this wondrous planet, that is the measure of our success,” David Myers, the conservancy’s president, said in an email.

The Eel River ecosystem supports more than 75 mammal species, 400 bird species and 16 species of fish, including federally protected coho salmon and steelhead trout, a Wildlife Conservation Board report said.

Protecting the new preserve “will allow the diverse habitats and species to persist through time even in the face of climate change,” it said.

A black tail buck looks to mate, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, at Lone Pine Ranch in Trinity County. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A black tail buck looks to mate, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, at Lone Pine Ranch in Trinity County. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

But the future of the bucolic river canyon is clouded by a competing plan to run up to 800 coal cars a day along a restored rail line.

“We know that Big Coal is nipping at heels,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who called the preserve “one of the most spectacular landscapes in all of America.”

He’s referring to a mysterious proposal revealed in August to ship coal from Wyoming and Montana along the abandoned rail line through the canyon to Humboldt Bay for overseas export.

State and local officials are united in opposition to the proposal, which is before a federal agency that regulates freight rail shipping.

“We are going to fight this tooth and nail,” McGuire said.

The conservancy, which plans to open the preserve to the public in a year or so, is starting to plan the parking lot, restrooms, ranger station and residence, campground and 25 miles of well-marked trails to accommodate hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, camping and kayaking, all with a permit at no charge.

Several trails will lead to the river, with a campground at a large grove of buckeye trees along the main road. Secondary development will include access for kayaks and rafts at each end of the preserve’s riverfront.

Some visitors, including volunteers and researchers, will be able to stay at the 10-bedroom Witter Lodge, with power, water, an expansive kitchen and dining room and a swimming pool, where several generations of the family relaxed for decades.

A small deck affords a stunning river view, with a marijuana garden and house in plain sight directly across the water.

The remote canyon is cannabis country, a haven for reclusive marijuana growers in an area with no prying eyes and readily available water.

The Eel River, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Trinity County. At lower right is the railroad that has been damaged by erosion and slides that snake along the canyon.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
The Eel River, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Trinity County. At lower right is the railroad that has been damaged by erosion and slides that snake along the canyon. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Witter, who died in 1969, cofounded with family members Dean Witter & Co. in 1924 and grew it into the largest investment house on the West Coast. Described by one of his grandchildren as a “mountain of a man,” Witter decorated the lodge with trophies from his big game hunting travels.

McGuire is enthused because the Eel River Canyon Preserve and the adjacent 3,019-acre Emerald Waters Reserve, another conservancy property, will provide a nearly 10-mile stretch of the proposed 320-mile Great Redwood Trail connecting San Francisco and Humboldt bays.

That stretch would be one of the first backcountry segments of the trail, which McGuire described as a “once in a lifetime project.”

The trail would be built through the river canyon on the abandoned Northwestern Pacific Railroad, which crosses the river on the Island Mountain Bridge onto the preserve and proceeds along the east side of the river.

The railroad, completed in 1914, once ran 271 miles from Schellville in Sonoma County to Eureka, and in 1998 became the first railroad shut down for safety reasons. At one spot in the canyon, twisted steel tracks lie on a hillside next to the river, resembling a scene from a Salvador Dali painting.

A white oak reacts to the change of seasons, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Trinity County. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A white oak reacts to the change of seasons, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Trinity County. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

In all, the new preserve has 15 miles of riverfront along the Eel’s main stem and another three miles along the river’s north fork, which forms the southern boundary of the preserve.

David Myers, the conservancy’s president, first spied the Witter ranch on a helicopter flight over the Eel River in 2005 and determined it had all the qualities of a national park. It wasn’t for sale at the time, but 15 years later Witter’s heirs made it available and Myers declared the nonprofit was “all in.”

In Witter’s day, a railroad station at Kekawaka Creek at the ranch’s northern border provided easy access for folks coming all the way from San Francisco.

Getting there now requires a drive to Covelo in Mendocino County’s Round Valley, 124 miles from Santa Rosa, capped by an hourlong ride at 20 to 30 mph on a mostly dirt road to the preserve gate.

The payoff is sensational.

A recent daylong tour of the preserve with Luke Farmer, the conservancy’s regional director in charge of the Eel River property and Jenner Headlands, resembled a safari.

A four-point black-tailed buck deer, his heavily antlered head bowed low for scent, engaged in mating behavior with two diminutive females not far from the Witter Lodge, which will retain its name in acknowledgment of the family’s decision to see it preserved forever.

A pair of white-tailed Kites perch on a stunted live oak tree, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 at Lone Pine Ranch, in Trinity County.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A pair of white-tailed Kites perch on a stunted live oak tree, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 at Lone Pine Ranch, in Trinity County. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A rare Roosevelt bull elk strides for cover at Rice Lake, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 in Trinity County, part of a $25 million purchase by the Wildlands Conservancy of Lone Pine Ranch, owned since the 1940s by financial titan Dean Witter and his descendants. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A rare Roosevelt bull elk strides for cover at Rice Lake, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 in Trinity County, part of a $25 million purchase by the Wildlands Conservancy of Lone Pine Ranch, owned since the 1940s by financial titan Dean Witter and his descendants. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

A small number of Roosevelt elk, with hulking tan bodies and dark brown heads, necks and feet, appeared at one end of Rice Lake, an extensive wetlands. Two herds averaging up to 40 of the elusive elk range on and off the preserve.

Farmer, who is exploring the preserve’s numerous unmarked roads, called the elk sighting a “momentous experience.” Roosevelt elk are the largest of six subspecies of elk in North America, with bulls weighing up to 1,200 pounds.

The preserve will allow limited deer hunting and welcome hunting of the nonnative feral pigs that uproot acres of grassland.

Located on the slope of Lake Mountain in the Coast Ranges of Mendocino and Trinity counties, the preserve includes grass land, forests, oak woodlands, streams and wetlands, invigorated by October’s rains.

Thick moss covers blankets an oak tree, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 in Trinity County.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Thick moss covers blankets an oak tree, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 in Trinity County. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

“It is unbelievable how much water the property has,” Farmer said. “It is a blessing to see it like this again.”

In spring, the hills erupt in a palette of wildflowers, with lupin forming swaths of blue and purple across the slopes, accentuating the contours of the landscape, Farmer said.

From a vantage point above Kekawaka Creek, an adjoining ridge was covered with the bare, blackened trees killed by last year’s August Complex fire that touched 7,000 acres of the ranch, with severe damage limited to 500 acres.

The complex, ignited by multiple lightning strikes, scorched 1 million acres in seven counties, the state’s largest-ever wildland blaze.

A working cattle ranch since Witter’s time, the preserve will continue to graze several hundred cattle to manage invasive species like brome grass and yellow star thistle, promoting native plant growth.

The preserve completes the first reach of the conservancy’s Eel River Emerald Necklace that begins with kayaking from Dos Rios — the confluence of the river’s middle fork and main stem on Highway 162 in Mendocino County — 11 miles to the 5,832-acre Spyrock Preserve.

Ten miles downstream from Spyrock will be a landing at the north fork, with another landing 11 miles away at Kekawaka Creek, both on the new preserve, and followed by a 9.5-mile paddle to Alderpoint, a remote Humboldt County hamlet with access to Highway 101.

Ultimately, the necklace will offer 10 preserves, each a day apart for hikers and kayakers, spanning 110 miles from Spyrock Preserve to an existing 1,300-acre Eel River Estuary Preserve near the ocean.

The conservancy’s preserves are all open to the public at no cost.

“We believe if you have to pay to visit nature you have been dispossessed of your birthright,” Myers said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-888-9149 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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