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Santa Rosa-based LandPaths acquiring Ocean Song property outside Occidental

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OCCIDENTAL — From the upper reaches of Ocean Song, a storied property overlooking the Sonoma Coast, the landscape unfolds in sloping hills and creased creek valleys, with still more shadowed ridges beyond as the western horizon stretches out to meet the silvery surface of the Pacific Ocean.

Rock-studded rangeland here runs up against dark conifer forests where wildlife roams. It’s a landscape little changed since the counter-culture movement sunk deep roots in the region five decades ago, and one of their settlements is still yielding fruit at Ocean Song Farm and Wilderness Center, which has persisted as a hub for simple living, sustainable agriculture, environmental education and social harmony.

Now LandPaths, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit land stewardship and educational organization, is working to preserve that legacy through a $9.4 million acquisition of the nearly 800-acre property. The group envisions it as an oasis for wildlife and people who want to learn to live in partnership with nature and teach young people to do the same.

“Every child in Sonoma County should have the opportunity to spend time at this incomparable place, to look out upon the expanse of land and sea — from the Farallon Islands to Mt. Diablo — and allow themselves to dream their lives as big and as beautiful as that vista,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths.

The property is laced by hiking trails, with gardens and a large barn used for a variety of events. Its purchase would connect Ocean Song to the Willow Creek addition of the Sonoma Coast State Park and allow thru-hikes from Coleman Valley Road all the way to Shell Beach.

“It’s not just 800 acres we’re buying,” Anderson said. “You’re connecting to 5,000 acres of open space.”

But it will be some time before LandPaths is ready to welcome visitors formally onto the property. The group has to complete the purchase first, and then plan and apply for county permits authorizing the activities and events it wants to host.

October marked the close of the first purchase, a 421-acre parcel familiar to a generation of schoolchildren as Coyote Camp, a nature and wilderness retreat that ran for about 16 years on the site before it was shut down in 2017 because of long-running code violations.

That purchase was funded by two local families who anonymously donated $3.1 million of a total $5.5 million raised so far. The nonprofit still needs to raise about $3.9 million to fulfill its contract for the remaining 373-acre property owned by Pieter and Marya Myers, who bought the entire acreage in 1975 from a cattle ranching family.

“I’m confident we’ll do it,” Anderson said.

The 23-year-old LandPaths seeks to engage people with nature and public lands through volunteer stewardship, outings, youth programs, camps and events, with a particular focus on involving diverse populations and building community.

In recent years, it has acquired several properties, including the 1,000-acre Bohemia Ecological Preserve near Occidental, Riddell Preserve above Dry Creek Valley and Rancho Mark West near the headwaters of Mark West Creek. It also owns in Occidental the 48-acre Grove of the Old Trees, acquired in 2000.

Work on the Ocean Song purchase has been underway for more than two years, Anderson said, describing a deal that included razing at least four buildings constructed over the years without permits.

The goal is a place that will allow future generations access to the site and serve as a hub linked to adjacent public land. The property already has a “forever wild” conservation easement over 240 acres through the Sonoma Land Trust. The gardens have been planted to appeal to birds, insects and wildlife, said Lisa Baiter, one of several longtime volunteer caretakers.

“With its stunning views and intimate gardens, complimented by vibrant insect, bird and animal life, this is a place where you get the true, visceral feeling of the land being alive,” LandPaths program director Lee Hackling said.

Myers, a photographer and printmaker, said he and his wife were lured north to the property from Marin County four decades ago after a chance meeting in San Francisco with artist, Bill Wheeler, the famed founder of a nearby eponymous ranch commune that had its heyday in the late 1960s.

As their friendship grew during visits to Wheeler’s place, Myers, now 80, learned the sprawling Kelly cattle ranch 5 miles west of Occidental was for sale. Though he was more interested in something closer to 10 acres, Myers ended up with 900. He later sold off 100 acres, where Jerry Garcia’s widow lives today.

The Myers arrived as a young family and soon acquired a cow and some chickens, learned to make cheese and grow produce. They lived on the property in a small commune they called the Center of the Pumpkin. They would later branch out into organic gardening and develop one of the first local community-supported agriculture programs, cultivating crops and an orchard on a flat area of the hill with a panoramic view.

But the group found its niche through children’s programming in the late 1980s and early ’90s, bringing schoolchildren out to visit animals, hike the hill and examine wildlife in the woods and nearby Finley Creek. They developed a summer program called Discovery Camp and even had a school briefly in the early 1990s, Myers said.

“This is an island in the middle of our civilization,” said Ron Karp, who managed many of the programs going back to the 1980s. “The value here was letting nature be the guiding principle of why this place exists — not commerce, not development.”

Ocean Song Farm and Wilderness Center evolved through a pair of land deals that involved a group with Hare Krishna links and later the EarthWays Foundation, both of which had ambitious visions for the property that ran into public and regulatory obstacles.

Ocean Song was involved throughout as an operator of the camp and school programs, along with the gardens. Its leaders included Baiter and Karp and Karen Vogel, who said she’s driven by the “ancestral presence of people who have been coming to this land for 10,000 years, and the joy on people’s faces when they come through the gate for the first time.”

The LandPaths deal was hailed recently by Congressman Jared Huffman, the San Rafael Democrat whose district stretches along the coast from the Golden Gate to the Oregon border.

“This land acquisition is a big win for the public. I can’t imagine another place in my congressional district where Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands, wild coastal forest and high coastal grasslands are captured in one view,” he said in a written statement. “This property conveys the tremendous natural beauty and resources along the North Coast, and is arguably some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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