Land Trust of Napa County completes conservation purchase of Walt Ranch, site of disputed development
Doug Parker of the Land Trust of Napa County calls it “one of the most important projects we’ve ever done.”
It certainly promises to be one of the most popular.
Five months after announcing its intent to purchase Walt Ranch in eastern Napa County, the land trust has completed the deal. The organization raised a total of $18 million to buy the rugged 2,300-acre property from Craig and Kathryn Hall, who own Hall Wines.
The Halls’ plan to develop part of Walt Ranch into vineyards had resulted in a yearslong political tussle, one that eventually ensnared Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza. The acquisition of the site by a trusted environmental steward seems likely to assuage all sides.
Jim Wilson said he felt “relief and consolation” at hearing the news. Wilson, a retired risk analyst and self-described climate responsibility advocate, can look out over Walt Ranch from his home in the eastern hills.
“Whenever someone is issued a permit to tear out a forest, the carbon lost in that process is irrecoverable,” Wilson said, noting Napa County’s goal of being carbon-neutral by 2030. “There’s no mitigating for it. That loss is paid by our children. The county issues the permit, but people and the planet do not give their permission. That’s the ugly math of this situation.”
No one has ever doubted Walt Ranch’s significance. It sits on hilly, unspoiled terrain off Highway 121, roughly halfway between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa.
“It’s large, first of all,” said Parker, the land trust CEO. “It’s right next to over 5,000 acres of protected land. And it’s right in two wildlife corridors we’ve identified before. There are a number of rare species found on the property — especially plants. It has wildflower plants that exist only in Napa County and the surrounding area. Milliken Creek runs through the property.
“It meets all the criteria we use in terms of prioritizing purchases.”
Getting to the finish line by the stated deadline of June 1 was no small task for the land trust.
As previously reported by the Napa Valley Register, the state Coastal Conservancy, a public agency, agreed in April to provide a $7 million grant for the land purchase. That left a gap of $11 million. The land trust filled it with a $2 million loan from The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit, and another $9 million from the private Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The latter is a mix of grant and loan money described as a “program-related investment.”
The Moore Foundation — Gordon Moore, who died in late March, was one of the founders of Intel — is one of the 10 largest private foundations in the United States, and Walt Ranch represents its biggest programmatic investment ever.
“Which reflects the significance of the opportunity and the fact that we don’t typically win these types of deals in conservation,” Dan Winterson, who manages the foundation’s conservation portfolio, said in an email.
Winterson echoed Parker’s praise of the site, as did Dan Medeiros, The Conservation Fund’s California project manager.
“The protection of Walt Ranch has national significance and we were thrilled to support Napa Land Trust with bridge funding to make it happen,” Medeiros said in a statement. “The project partners needed to act fast to ensure the land’s protection.”
And must act again. Taking on at least $7 million in debt is a significant burden for the Land Trust, Parker acknowledged. And its hopes and obligations don’t end with the ownership paperwork.
“We know this will be a pretty expensive property to manage,” Parker said. “It will eventually be open to public access. That means trails, parking lots. And always on our properties, we get involved in removal of invasive species and replanting of native species. And we’re involved with a lot of fuel reduction projects” like controlled burns, grazing and mowing.
The Land Trust of Napa County seeks to raise an additional $4 million for these programs, Parker said. He noted that the Coastal Conservancy agreement calls for a management plan to be in place by 2026. The land trust hopes to have that solidified well before then, according to Parker.
The trust will work with the public Napa County Open Space District to steward Walt Ranch. Parker was unsure when the site might be available for public access, though he said his organization would like to begin some land management there before the next fire season begins.
“The issue for us is that we’re going into debt just to acquire the property,” he said. “We’ll have to work to get funding for the next phase.”