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Family preserves 758-acre ranch just east of Healdsburg, blocks future development

Christine Foppiano-Haun stood in a meadow of wild oat and foxtails on her ranch high above the Russian River, pointing at a ridgeline to the northwest.

“You can see where there’s a housing development creeping over the hill,” she said.

Those houses, in northern Healdsburg, were only two miles distant. But the remoteness of the ranch, the birdsong and rustle of a recent afternoon breeze in the boughs of giant oaks, made the city seem much farther away.

And Haun hopes to keep it that way. That’s why she and her sister, Ruth Ann Foppiano, recently closed escrow on a conservation easement on this land, the 758-acre Walter and Jean Foppiano Ranch, named for their late parents. That easement, finalized April 30 with Sonoma Land Trust, will prevent these rolling hills and grasslands from ever being developed or subdivided.

The easement assures protection for one of the largest remaining ranches along the middle reach of the Russian River, said Sheri Cardo, communications director for the Sonoma Land Trust, the Santa Rosa nonprofit dedicated to preserving natural landscapes. Asked how much the trust paid for the easement, she replied: “We’re honoring the family’s request for privacy on that.”

This property, which has been in the Foppiano family since the mid-1950s, forms a peninsula, bounded on three sides by the Russian River, which curves around the southern end of the land before wending northeast, toward Healdsburg, then doubling back and resuming its southward course. Its meadows, oak woodlands and three miles of streamside habitat had been identified as essential for preservation by the Bay Area-based Conservation Lands Network.

The easement ensures this undeveloped tract will continue to naturally filter water used by more than 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties, and is home to such threatened species as chinook, coho salmon and steelhead trout, said Sara Press, acquisition program manager for Sonoma Land Trust.

Rainwater seeping into the soil on the property also replenishes underground aquifers at a rate of 702-acre feet per year, according to the Sonoma Land Trust — as much water as 3,600 households use in a year.

The Foppiano Ranch sequesters some 54,000 tons of greenhouse gases, Press said, equivalent to the annual energy use of over 6,000 homes. It also serves as a kind of wildlife corridor between Fitch Mountain and Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Modini Preserve, 3,000 protected acres above Highway 128 in the Alexander Valley. Such corridors allow animals safer movement between large blocks of core habitat.

“You can come up here and just lose yourself,” said Haun, her gaze taking in the densely wooded dome of Fitch Mountain to the west, the Alexander Valley and the dramatic eminence of Mount Saint Helena, 10 miles east. Haun and her husband, Rob, often drive to one of their favorite spots on the property with a picnic, she said. Sitting on the tailgate of their pickup, they’ll eat dinner while watching the sunset.

She wasn’t always in love with the ranch. As a girl, she felt socially isolated. “We had a long dirt road to our house,” Haun recalled. “People didn’t just drop by.”

But as I got older, I spent a lot of time with my Dad, and really came to appreciate this place, a lot. And I still do.”

Walter Foppiano worked the ranch right up until the last day of his life, when he was killed in a tractor accident in 1998 at the age of 79.

“My Dad truly loved this property,” Haun said. “I think he would be pleased that it isn’t going to change.”

Which is not to say it won’t burn, on occasion. Haun recalled standing on a ridge looking east one night 57 years ago at flames on Mount Saint Helena.

“I worried the fire was going to come close to us,” she recalled, “but my Dad said, ‘No, it’s got a long way to go. It will never cross the river.’”

The Hanly fire of 1964 moved south and west, missing the Foppiano property but burning 53,000 acres as it roared right up to the northern edge of Santa Rosa.

The Russian River did not keep the Kincade fire, sparked by a downed PG&E power line 20 miles north, from scorching much of the Foppiano Ranch in October 2019. Firefighters cut a line that saved the couple’s house. But the flames raked much of the rest of the ranch. While some of the stout old oak trees died, many survived.

“After a winter and spring,” said Haun, motioning to the surviving trees and grasses during a recent tour of the property, “everything greened up.”

The Foppianos did lose a barn. On this afternoon, a dozen or so of the ranch’s 40 cows had plopped down for a rest on the ground where that barn stood. Another had chosen, for her place of rest, the middle of the nearby dirt road, forcing Haun to stop her truck. Finally, grudgingly, the bovine moved along, taking her sweet time, as if she owned the place.

The barn will eventually be replaced — one of the few new structures that will rise on this ranch.

“Selling the ranch was an option,” Haun said. “But keeping it intact, the way it is — it just meant a lot to us.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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