Land preserved to educate kids

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A gnarled manzanita stands on Buzzard's Roost, a colorfully named promontory in a conifer forest that overlooks Mark West Creek and a broad meadow of browning grass.

"Did you see my hand-written sign warning of rattlesnakes?" Betty Doerksen asks. "Maybe I have to make a bigger one."

The Doerksen ranch, known as Ranchero Mark West, is 122 acres in the Mark West valley, with a 140-year-old barn and 160-year-old farmhouse, on St. Helena Road in the heart of the Mayacamas.

It's a jewel for the Doerksens and for the public, and the Doerksens are making sure it stays that way.

The ridge that rises behind the ranch has imposing forests of redwoods and Douglas fir, the majority of them planted by Jim Doerksen over the past 40 years, by his count a million in all.

"I took 200 forestry classes. I decided I'll go ahead and get this right. You can have a forest and not damage the land," Doerksen said.

The ranch is only 20 minutes from downtown Santa Rosa, but when you're there, it feels farther.

"The old timers called it Alpine Valley," said Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths, a non-profit conservation group. "It looks like many places around Copperolis and the western slope of the Sierra."

The diogenes lantern and Red Larkspur wild flowers are in bloom and the Calypso Orchid, also known as the redwood orchid, was in bloom two months ago.

Doerksen has been a steward of the land since he bought it in 1967, clearing brush, planting trees, carefully maintaining the narrow, steep logging roads that loop through the ridge and worrying about the Coho and steelhead in Mark West Creek.

The Doerksens have identified 236 different species of birds, the land has resident mountain lions, it is a rare sighting but black bear have been seen, there are too many deer to count and two baby rattlesnakes were seen Monday under a low, makeshift bench at Buzzard's Roost.

To Jim Doerksen, however, the magic of the land is that he can share it, which he has purposefully encouraged over the decades.

"I see a real disconnect with the kids and the outdoors, and I have the opportunity to do something about it," Doerksen said.

By his count, some 200,000 children in school programs, civic groups, universities and forestry have hiked through, camped on and visited the property.

The local Alpine Club is holding its 35th anniversary party at the ranch in July, expected to draw 350 people who live in the surrounding area.

"It is an idyllic place for environmental education," Anderson said.

To make sure that the public use continues, Doerksen is selling the ranch to LandPaths for $1 million, to be transferred to the non-profit after the Doerksens' lifetimes.

The state Coastal Conservancy has already given LandPaths a $750,000 grant, leaving LandPaths to find the remaining $250,000 through fund-raising and raise another $1.2 million for improvements.

"We know the property will be looked after, and we get to stay here," Doerksen said.

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