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Public open space outside Santa Rosa grows with deal for Mark West Creek land

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Generations of kids and other nature lovers will continue to enjoy outdoor experiences at a Mark West Creek ranch northeast of Santa Rosa under a new conservation deal that maintains public access to the property in perpetuity.

More broadly, open space advocates say preservation of the 124-acre Rancho Mark West builds upon a legacy of protecting land from development in the sensitive environmental area while offering the public more opportunities to engage with nature a short distance away from Santa Rosa.

“We hope to be able to walk people from Santa Rosa to Rancho Mark West to spend the night. That would be a pretty incredible opportunity,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit group LandPaths.

LandPaths will continue to operate In Our Own Backyard, Owl Camp and other popular outdoor programs for kids at the St. Helena Road ranch under an updated conservation easement that protects public access to the site.

Jim and Betty Doerksen originally sold the development rights to the property to the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District in 1993. Under the terms of the new deal, the district is paying off a $250,000 loan the couple made to LandPaths when it agreed to purchase the property in 2012 for $1 million.

The state Coastal Conservancy kicked in the other $750,000. Anderson called it a bargain, saying the appraised value of the land and buildings at the time was $3.9 million.

Besides letting go of the property for much less than what they could have gotten for it, the Doerksens are donating tools and tractors to LandPaths, which manages other open space properties in the county.

“It’s a phenomenal gift to the people of Sonoma County,” Anderson said.

Touring the property in a four-wheel vehicle Tuesday, Jim Doerksen, 76, focused on the land’s value as a natural resource.

When he purchased 500 acres from Rollie B. Newman, the inventor of the pay telephone, for $197,000 in 1967, the property was blanketed in nearly impenetrable brush.

Doerksen, a retired engineer and real estate entrepreneur, harvested millions of board feet while logging the site. He also planted what he estimates to be more than a million Douglas firs and redwoods, which now stand hundreds of feet tall, their canopies casting a cooling shadow across the mountain.

A spring-fed pond on the property is home to fish and several otters. From Buzzards Roost, a promontory high in the forest, what locals refer to as Alpine Valley stretches out below, the Doerksen family home spotted in the distance.

A divorce in the 1980s required Jim Doerksen to split the property, leaving him with the 124 acres.

The property includes about a mile of Mark West Creek, which originates about 6 miles west of St. Helena and meanders for miles before emptying into the Russian River near Steelhead Beach.

The creek is one of only a few tributaries of the Russian River that still supports a healthy population of steelhead trout, a threatened species in the watershed.

Over the years, the Doerksens, who also operated a popular Christmas tree farm, declined opportunities to subdivide the property for development.

“The moral of the story is all this will be saved and used for a useful purpose,” Jim Doerksen said.

He and his wife can continue to live on the property for as long as they want under the terms of the final conservation agreement. LandPaths eventually will acquire all of the property and buildings, including Sonoma County’s oldest barn, constructed in 1838, and the house where the Doerksens live, also a historic structure.

Rancho Mark West fits into the county’s grander vision of offering numerous opportunities for the public to engage with nature in the Mark West Creek area. The open space district has protected six properties and more than 2,340 acres in the watershed through both conservation easements and outright purchases.

The acquisitions include 362 acres of the Cresta property and 461 acres of the McCullough property that Regional Parks hopes to include in a proposed 1,100-acre park off Porter Creek Road. The park would offer self-guided backcountry experiences, as opposed to the more organized outings at Rancho Mark West.

The Cresta and McCullough ranches border protected lands to the north and would create a contiguous 4,500-acre wildlife corridor stretching from the Mayacmas Mountains to Mark West Creek and its tributaries.

Anderson’s hope is that the 960-acre Saddle Mountain Open Space Preserve east of Santa Rosa will one day be connected to Rancho Mark West, enhancing public access to both sites.

“Protecting things on paper and doing restoration projects with great science is important,” Anderson said, “but equally as important is connecting our population to land on a weekly, if not daily, basis so people understand its value.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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