Conservation group paying $29 million to protect sprawling Dean Witter Lone Pine Ranch along Eel River
A conservation organization has unveiled its plans to acquire a 30,000-acre ranch along the Eel River that will ultimately afford public access to trails and a 20- mile stretch of the river though the Eel River Canyon, where state Sen. Mike McGuire and others envision a trail from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay.
The Wildlands Conservancy, which already owns two preserves along the Eel River, spent $3.9 million of its own funds to buy a 3,055-acre portion of the Dean Witter Lone Pine Ranch straddling Mendocino and Trinity counties and including 3.5 miles of riverfront in a wild, remote area unseen by most people.
That deal gave the nonprofit organization a two-year option to purchase the remaining 27,000 acres for $25 million, said David Myers, the conservancy’s executive director.
The ranch was owned for decades by Dean Witter, an investment banker and stockbroker originally based in San Francisco who purchased the land in the early 1940s and died in 1969.
Myers said the sprawling property is now owned by 16 of Witter’s heirs “who are ecstatic that we are going to protect it.”
The Southern California-based Wildlands Conservancy owns and operates California’s largest nonprofit nature preserve system and maintains all of it open to the public free of charge for hiking and camping.
“If you have to pay to visit nature, you’ve been dispossessed of a birthright,” Myers said.
The conservancy manages in partnership with the Sonoma Land Trust the 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands Preserve, opened to the public last year along the Sonoma Coast.
Myers called acquisition of the Witter ranch “a rare opportunity to preserve some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the country.”
Peter Galvin, co-founder and director of programs for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release the purchase “will ensure permanent protection for one of the most wild and scenic river stretches in the western United States.”
The 50-mile Eel River Canyon, which begins north of Willits in Mendocino County, flows through miles of wildlands with no public road access all the way to Alderpoint in Humboldt County.
McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat, and Caryl Hart of Occidental, the former head of the Sonoma County Regional Parks, are promoting a 300-mile walking and cycling trail from Larkspur through the river canyon alongside an unused rail corridor and ending near Eureka.
“The Eel River Canyon will be the crown jewel of the trail – incredibly beautiful and as remote as it gets in California,” McGuire said. The conservancy’s acquisition “can help us create public access points, campgrounds and trail facilities for generations to enjoy.”
The Witter Ranch preserve, when opened, will form another link in the Wildlands Conservancy’s Emerald Necklace project, which envisions a series of preserves along the Eel River from Dos Rios, where the river’s main and middle forks come together in Mendocino County, all the way north to the river’s Pacific Ocean mouth in Humboldt County south of Eureka.
Spyrock Reserve is about 10.5 miles downstream from Dos Rios, and the southernmost point of the Witter Ranch, where the river’s north fork joins the main stem, is another 10 to 12 miles farther on.
Witter Ranch, accessible by road from Covelo and Alderpoint, will have 20 miles of riverfront suitable for river trips, Myers said.
The ranch also features a 5,300-square-foot riverfront home with 10 bedrooms and five bathrooms that will become a camping hostel, he said.
It is home to a herd of Roosevelt elk, with wetlands and woodlands, including 86 million board feet of fir, pine and oak trees. Myers said there will be no more commercial timber harvesting other than removal of dead trees.
The conservancy’s Eel River Estuary Preserve on the Humboldt County coast is miles away, a gulf to be closed by establishing preserves a day’s paddle apart.