Sonoma Coast’s Stewarts Point becomes part of historic agreement for coastal ranch

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Martina Morgan’s black hair whipped about as she gazed out from Stewarts Point in northwest Sonoma County this week at a stunning expanse of Pacific Ocean.

Far below her, waves crashed on a rock-strewn beach where Morgan and her great-grandfather gathered shellfish, seaweed and other dietary staples of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians. Leonard Marrufo is gone now, but the rope the pair relied on to rappel down the 70-foot cliff to access the beach is still there, attached to a wooden post buried deep in the bluff.

Now vice chairwoman of the Kashia tribe, Morgan said the site between Jenner and The Sea Ranch is sacred ground for the tribe’s 1,000 members, the place where they believe their creator sent down spirits with explicit instructions that they take only what they need and leave the rest.

“That’s our island,” Morgan said, pointing to a large flat-top rock she said her ancestors climbed to access the land.

The tribe’s special connection to what Morgan referred to as “the beginning place” is part of a historic new land use agreement for Stewarts Point Ranch that marries elements of cultural preservation, habitat protection, outdoor recreation and economic development through logging.

Those wide-ranging provisions comprise a $6 million conservation easement recently purchased for Stewarts Point Ranch by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and other public and private agencies.

The deal encompasses 868 acres of coastal land that incorporates about a mile of coastal bluff north of Salt Point State Park and extends inland for some 2 miles across grazing lands and mountains straddled by dense forest, including 100 acres of scattered old-growth redwoods skirting more than a mile of the Gualala River.

The property offers a wide lens on the region’s natural and cultural history, according to Sam Hodder, president and CEO of Save the Redwoods League, which purchased the site from the Richardson family in 2010 for $11.25 million.

“It brings together what’s so special about the state of California,” said Hodder, as he walked the bluffs this week, boots sloshing along saturated pastureland.

Under the conservation easement, 525 acres of second-growth redwoods on the property can be logged using sustainable methods. Officials say that could provide local jobs, as well as a source of revenue for the property’s ultimate owner. The nonprofit Redwoods League is seeking a buyer.

Stewarts Point offers an opportunity to strike a rare balance of managing the forest for fire suppression, healthy habitat for species such as spotted owls and economic vitality, according to Stephanie Martin, senior wildlife biologist for North Coast Resource Management, which was hired to steward the property.

“If you just put these forests in a conservation reserve where you don’t do anything, eventually they’re not going to be doing us a whole lot. They need to be managed to some extent,” Martin said.

She and other officials made that case while on a tour of the Stewarts Point forest this week. Riding in all-terrain buggies, the group traversed steep and narrow logging roads beneath a dense canopy of redwoods, Douglas firs, bishop pines and other species of tall trees.

At higher elevations, the forest was a tangled mess, highlighting concerns about fire danger and potential adverse impacts on wildlife habitat and waterways.

In the late 1800s, loggers brought redwoods out of the forest using steam-powered winches, called steam donkeys, and loaded the trees onto schooners bound for San Francisco, said Todd McMahon, vice president of North Coast Resource, a land management consultancy. He said crews placed trees on the ground and piled them with dirt to create make-shift bridges for travel over streams.

The network has begun failing in places, including at one spot where the road has cratered precariously over a stream as a result of erosion, imperiling future crossings. The water flows from a sag pond, one of two created by seismic activity along the San Andreas Fault, which bisects the property.

The old-growth redwoods at the property’s eastern flank reflect a healthier environment. The trees, which are to be protected in perpetuity, are spread out amid a dense undergrowth of ferns along the banks of the Gualala River, which flowed swiftly this week following winter storms.

Strolling beneath the giants, Bill Keene, general manager of the county Open Space District, marveled aloud that loggers left any of the valuable trees intact.

“Most logging operations, they just cut the stuff and it’s gone,” he said.

He and other officials credit the Richardson family for their stewardship of the property. They have owned much of the oceanfront property in the Stewarts Point area for generations, dating back to Herbert Archer Richardson’s arrival from Franconia, New Hampshire, in 1876.

In 2015, the family closed on a $6 million deal to sell nearly 700 acres of land they owned south of Stewarts Point Ranch to the Trust for Public Land, which in turn negotiated a deal to transfer the property to the Kashia people.

As part of that agreement, the tribe is committed to protecting the property, which includes more than 350 acres of redwood forest. Plans for that site include installing more than a mile of the California Coastal Trail along the ocean bluffs.

Similarly, about a mile of the coastal walking path — which ultimately is intended to extend 1,200 miles from Mexico to the Oregon border — is planned for Stewarts Point Ranch. Sonoma County Regional Parks is in charge of developing the local trails.

Morgan said the Richardsons were gracious over the years about letting her and other members of the Kashia tribe go on to the property. Under the cultural easement granted by the Redwoods League, tribal members will still be able to hold seasonal ceremonies on the bluff and to harvest from the sea.

“There’s plenty of food out here,” Morgan said at the bluff. “Creator started us in a good spot because we wouldn’t go hungry here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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