Financier Dean Witter’s Northern California ranch along Eel River to become public park

COVELO — A ranch in remote Northern California once owned by the late financier Dean Witter has been sold to a nature conservancy that plans to convert into a park, providing public access to a wild and scenic stretch of the Eel River for the first time.

The nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy announced Wednesday it closed escrow on the nearly 30,000-acre, $25 million property and will rename it Eel River Canyon Preserve, after the 196-mile river that runs from the Mendocino National Forest to the Humboldt County coast.

The property features a 10-bedroom lodge and a stretch of mountains and valleys that is home to two herds of Roosevelt elk.

Witter, who founded the San Francisco investment firm Dean Witter and Co., bought a handful of parcels to create the ranch in the 1940s. He and his wife, Helen, used the property as a retreat, timber operation and working cattle ranch. After his death in 1969, the ranch was handed down to generations of his family, who in recent years decided it was too much for them to handle.

"When we put the ranch on the market, I had the very earnest prayer that the place be passed on to an entity that would take as good of or better care than us,” Brooks Witter, Dean’s great grandson, told The San Francisco Chronicle .

The conservancy bought a 3,000-acre parcel from the Witter family two years ago and completed the acquisition of the rest of the property Tuesday with the support of private donors, the nonprofits Center for Biological Diversity and The Conservation Fundy, and $10 million in state funding.

“This historic conservation purchase will ensure permanent protection for one of the most wild and scenic river stretches in the western United States,” said Peter Galvin, cofounder and director of programs at the Center. "The ‘Grand Canyon of the Eel River’ is home to dozens of endangered species and rare wildlife. The Wildlands Conservancy’s heroic and visionary efforts to restore the Eel River and California’s wildlands will be appreciated by generations to come.”

The conservancy plans to retrofit the lodge within the next year for visitors and build a ranger station and primitive campground nearby. The property will initially be accessible by reservation; the group hopes to open to the public more broadly in two years.

The ranch acquisition is expected to move forward efforts to turn the abandoned Northwestern Pacific Railroad into a public path for hiking and bicycling and incorporate it into the Great Redwood Trail, a 320-mile path linking San Francisco and Humboldt Bays.

"The Eel River Canyon is like no other place in the west, and it will be the crown jewel of the Great Redwood Trail,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, who helped secure state appropriations for the conservancy.

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