Land Trust of Napa County completes conservation purchase of Walt Ranch, site of disputed development

The Land Trust of Napa County called the Walt Ranch purchase “one of the most important projects we’ve ever done.” It raised a total of $18 million to buy the rugged 2,300-acre property from Craig and Kathryn Hall, owners of Hall Wines.|

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.”

The Halls bought Walt Ranch — Walt is Kathryn’s maiden name; her family owned a Mendocino County winery in the 1970s — for $8 million in 2005, and quickly began planning for vineyards there. But critics of the conversion project decried the loss of woodlands, effects on wildlife and the possibility of damaging local watersheds.

The final version of the Halls’ Walt Ranch project, approved by Napa County supervisors in 2016, called for 209 acres of vineyards and a total disturbed area of 316 acres. The best estimate called for removal of 14,000 mature oak trees.

That was far too much for many county residents, who viewed Walt Ranch as an overdue test of limits on the financial power of wealthy winery and vineyard owners.

The already-prickly subject turned incendiary last year when Napa resident Beth Nelsen revealed that Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza’s family had purchased undeveloped land adjacent to Walt Ranch, and that Pedroza helped secure a $2.7 million loan for the parcel, using his Napa home as collateral.

By then, the supervisor had voted on a number of items pertaining to Walt Ranch. Nelsen and others insisted Pedroza recuse himself moving forward. After initial reluctance, he agreed. Unsatisfied, the angry residents mounted a recall campaign against him. It failed. Pedroza has since announced he will not run for another term as Supervisor.

Nelsen also filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state campaign watchdog. Well over a year later, the commission has yet to complete its investigation.

For Wilson, the Walt Ranch neighbor, the land purchase represents a victory for the planet, but a political failing. The Halls had a permit for their vineyard project and could have moved forward, he noted.

“Everyone who comes to Napa to make wine and can’t find a vineyard on the valley floor has to go to hillsides,” Wilson said. “And it’s the county that issues the permit. Removing the forest is often just a matter of getting down to business. I’m relieved because of the Halls, not because of a county government that takes care of its citizens.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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