Staff and board members of the Sonoma County Land Trust tour the 572-acre Live Oaks Ranch on the border of Sonoma and Napa counties in Knights Valley on Thursday afternoon.

Sonoma Land Trust gets 572-acre gift

Marie Rogers was a tough, independent woman who never married, wore plaid shirts, worked with a chain saw and didn't much care if the two dozen cattle she kept on her sprawling ranch in Knights Valley ever went to market.

They were free to roam and the bones they left behind when they munched their last grass are still there to prove it.

So is the ranch, and that's how Rogers, the daughter of a Maryland dairy family and known to most as "Rie," wanted it when she died two years ago at the age of 94.

The rolling meadows, oak woodlands and grass ridges under Mount St. Helena, she decided, were to remain as wild and open as the day in 1957 when she bought the 572-acre spread from her aunt and uncle, Ed and Miriam Woodruff. They had purchased the ranch in 1939 for $9,200.

In her will Rogers gave the property to the Sonoma Land Trust. The Santa Rosa-based nonprofit, which took over the property late last year, intends to see that the ranch also stays off the market and remains undeveloped.

"A lot of what we're doing now is pulling together these large acreages and protected landscapes," said Ralph Benson, the group's executive director.

During a trip to the ranch Thursday, Benson pointed west across Knights Valley to another 128 acres the land trust protected, the Laufenburg Ranch. Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,117-acre spread owned by its own foundation, plus Robert Louis Stevenson State Park and other private, protected ranches are all nearby. Together they make up a chain of mostly undisturbed wildland in the heart of the southern Mayacmas range.

"It seemed like this (ranch) could be a really important part of that," Benson said.

The land donation is the largest yet for the 35-year-old land trust, which has protected about 25,000 acres in Sonoma County.

And the Sonoma group isn't the first to take an interest in Rogers' property. The Land Trust of Napa County holds a conservation easement that eliminated most development potential on the ranch, which straddles the Sonoma-Napa County line.

Full public access isn't planned because of the remote location and Rogers' wishes, but guided walks, school outings and scientific research are all seen as part of the property's future, said Bob Neale, stewardship director of Sonoma Land Trust.

"As a matter of practice, we open up our properties as often as possible," he said. The group offers similar managed access to its other lands, including the 5,600-acre Jenner Headlands property, the 2,300-acre Sears Point Ranch, and 1,600 acres that will be added next year to Tolay Lake Regional Park.

William Otey and Dona Fisher, Rogers' long-time live-in ranch hands, will continue to manage the property as pasture for a small cattle herd.

Bidwell Creek, a tributary of the Russian River, runs through the property and may have rainbow trout and remnants of a once-sizable steelhead run.

Otey, the caretaker, said photographs of fishermen on the ranch in mid-20th century showed them pulling 20-inch trout out of the creek. Mountain lions, bobcats and bears still roam the property, he said.

Improving wildlife habitat, especially for fish, is a priority, land trust officials said.

Tony Nelson, a stewardship manager, will oversee work on the property. "While it's in good shape, there might be some things we can do to make it better," he said.

The same can't be said for the ranch's sweeping vistas, which several guests Thursday summed up with one word.

"Wow," they said, standing on a hillside facing west.

"There's the view," said Wendy Eliot, who looked over the forested rim of Knights Valley and its floor of bare vineyards and blooming mustard fields.

The land trust's conservation director, Eliot oversaw the land deal as it crept along last year. She never had the chance to personally thank Rogers, which she regrets.

"This kind of came out of the blue," she said, adding that Rogers' gift was the most pleasant kind of surprise. "I wish I had gotten to meet her. Clearly she loved this ranch."

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