Saving Bohemia Ranch

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Enter "Bohemia Ranch" into Google and you'll find a web site offering nearly 900 acres of prime West County forest for sale — suitable for as many as six homes — all for $6 million.

Now, no such sale will ever happen. By the end of the week, landowner Ted Swindells, a San Francisco venture capitalist, expects to convey the majority of the ranch to LandPaths, a local non-profit dedicated to land stewardship and outdoor access.

It's the culminating move in a complex deal creating Sonoma County's newest private park — one with a year-round waterfall, stunning views and diverse ecology including rare plants like Pennel's bird's-beak.

"In this day and age of shrinking park budgets, this is a huge deal" said Craig Anderson, LandPaths' executive director. "It's a land deal that will echo for a long time to come."

For conservationists the expected exchange also marks the happy ending to a saga that stretches back more than a decade.

In 1996, an Oregon businessman purchased the land near Occidental off Bohemian Highway, which is marked by groves of redwoods and Douglas firs and crossed by a trio of creeks providing habitat for endangered coho salmon.

The property came with state permits to harvest 380 acres of timber, sparking environmentalists' fears of new logging.

Attempts in the late 90s to buy the property for public use included a concert headlined by Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead and husband of Caryl Hart, currently the director of Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Those efforts fell short and eventually the property was purchased by a corporation controlled by Swindells, who allayed environmentalists' deepest fears by installing a conservation easement permanently protecting 90 percent of the ranch.

He also spent millions of dollars cleaning up the property, removing dozens of junked automobiles and shoring up roads and trails wasted by erosion.

But the land remained off-limits to the public and appeared destined for private development after an effort to create a regional park faltered in 2010 as public funding dried up.

Swindells remained open to a deal to keep most of the land in conservancy, provided it included public access.

Plans hit fast-forward in 2010 when he met Anderson, whose organization uses "people power" to help manage thousands of acres of parklands at a fraction of the cost of traditional park systems.

Last year, LandPaths began scheduling volunteer events at the ranch, bringing out scores of volunteers to work on trails, pull invasive species and take on other needed tasks.

The commitment and energy impressed Swindells, a globe-trotting investor who makes it his job to stay abreast of innovation. LandPaths' approach, which mixes planned excursions with volunteerism, struck him as a leap forward considering the times, he said.

"To me, given the fact that the state and the county don't have money, this is the future for land management, to have people who participate and help and for that they have a sense of ownership and for that they have access," Swindells said. "This is a new model that's really at the right time at the right place."

The deal also involved the Sonoma Land Trust, which paid Swindells $1.45 million for a conservation easement that extinguished development rights over 554 acres of the property.

The remaining 350 acres of the ranch will be used as a rural retreat by a San Francisco family who have indicated willingness to work with LandPaths to allow trails to cross their land.

LandPaths' greatest goal is to get people working and playing together outdoors, creating community, bettering the land and making people more mindful of the environment, Anderson said.

Still, access to "Bohemia Ecological Preserve" will be restricted to protect both the habitat and the visitors.

Anderson said anyone wanting to check out the land should sign up for a LandPaths tour or volunteer opportunity.

Currently, two scheduled tours on Feb. 12 are already full, but there is space to volunteer on Feb. 20.

"We have to tell them it's fun," Anderson said. "Then they get out there and they realize it's way more fun than we ever told them."

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