Newest Sonoma County regional park to welcome visitors next year
As early as March, visitors will be invited to explore Sonoma County's newest regional park: a wooded 1,192-acre oasis north of Santa Rosa along more than 2.5 miles of upper Mark West Creek.
Pieced together through $23 million in taxpayer-funded acquisitions over more than a decade, the Mark West Regional Park and Open Space Preserve will open for once-a-month “park preview days” while the county conducts a multi-year environmental review and master planning for permanent operations.
The property is now officially public parkland after its transfer from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District last month, making it the third-largest property in the regional park system next to Tolay Lake and Hood Mountain.
“This is going to be one of the jewels of the system, for sure,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the Open Space District.
Purchased in six different chunks from three families, the new park puts hundreds of acres of wilderness within minutes of urban communities while preserving critical watersheds and wildlife habitat, officials said.
Like other public parks that were in the path of the 2017 fires, it will serve as a living laboratory for those studying wildfire recovery and resilience in the face of climate change.
It has an extensive network of trails that will support hiking, cycling and horseback riding, among other “passive” activities, Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker said.
Its existence fulfills a long-envisioned goal by park planners to locate a regional park in that part of Sonoma County, as demonstrated by a star placed on a map more than five decades ago at that location, Whitaker said.
The park property wasn't set aside until much more recently, beginning in 2002 with the Open Space District's purchase of a conservation easement along a critical stretch of upper Mark West Creek to ensure its protection.
The first land purchase was 340 acres from the Cresta family in 2007, followed by 461 acres bought in 2009 from John and Martha McCullough, who also donated $850,000 from the proceeds toward the park project.
All 1,192 acres now included in the park were at one point owned by the family of Bill Cresta, 90, whose parents, two uncles and aunts purchased the spread than 75 years ago. The family lived in San Francisco but frequently visited the Russian River.
Parcels were sold and divided up over the years, with the largest chunk - 736 acres - ending up with the McCulloughs. The Crestas also kept three parcels for many years, though all of it now has been sold to the county.
It wasn't always easy to get everybody in the family on board with the idea of conservation sale, Bill Cresta said, but now the land is finally “all back together,” and “it won't be subdivided - that's the main thing.”
“I know those people that started this are looking down and saying, ‘Thank you, Bill,'?” Cresta said.
Completion of the park puzzle might have taken still longer but for the Tubbs fire. When it swept through the area in October 2017, it destroyed homes and other buildings on the last three parcels purchased by the county, including 275 acres on which the McCulloughs still lived and pastured horses and cows.
“We had hoped to live out our lives there,” said John McCullough, who just turned 85. “We almost did.”
With their home gone, he and his wife negotiated the sale of the land this year as the Open Space District was finalizing the purchases of two other parcels totaling 94 acres - including 47 acres owned by the Wendle family, and the 47-acre ranch off Porter Creek Road that has long been home to Bill Cresta.
John McCullough had a long-held desire to see the public have access to the cherished landscape he and his family inhabited and stewarded for five decades. They arrived in the wake of the 1964 Hanly fire that devastated much of the same area burned by the Tubbs fire in 2017.
He said he cut more than 200 fire-ravaged trees and planted about 60,000 new ones during the intervening time. An avid horseman and endurance trail rider, he built about 22 miles of pathway through the forest.
He and his wife thought of it as “our private park,” he said.
The final piece of land where Bill Cresta retains his small home and the use of less than an acre of land under the sale agreement with him, made development of the park possible.
That's where the public will make access from Porter Creek Road, down a small drive that leads to the ranch and what's now Equi-Ed, an equine therapeutic and special education facility.
The bridge over the creek will eventually have to be replaced, Whitaker said, but the landing will be usable for preview days next year, part of an effort to give visitors their own chance to explore the property rather than setting tour times and destinations.
The park includes a mix of grasslands, oak woodland, redwood and Douglas fir forest and chaparral.
A pristine stretch of Mark West Creek - supporting rare coho salmon and steelhead trout - runs through the park. The property also takes in part of Mill Creek and Porter Creek, which provide important fish habitat.
Fire-blackened redwoods in the park are expected to survive, given their long adaptation to flames. Other trees on the property may be thinned, especially Douglas fir, which fared poorly in last year's fires.
County officials said the acreage would afford them and the public opportunities to observe wildfire recovery and explore tools that promote adaptation to a warming global climate.
A master plan and environmental impact report must be completed before the park can be opened for routine, daily visitation. It could take as long as five years, Whitaker said.
The Open Space District will fund the initial three years of planning, operations and maintenance. Funding from Measure M, the voter-approved eighth-cent sales tax passed last month, will pay for longer-term work.
Barring exceptional weather conditions, the Mark West Regional Park and Open Space Preserve should be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month beginning in March, Whitaker said.
Additional park preview days could be added if warranted by demand, he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat
I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment.