As early as March, visitors will be invited to explore Sonoma County’s newest regional park: a wooded 1,192-acre oasis north of Santa Rosa along more than 2.5 miles of upper Mark West Creek.
Pieced together through $23 million in taxpayer-funded acquisitions over more than a decade, the Mark West Regional Park and Open Space Preserve will open for once-a-month “park preview days” while the county conducts a multi-year environmental review and master planning for permanent operations.
The property is now officially public parkland after its transfer from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District last month, making it the third-largest property in the regional park system next to Tolay Lake and Hood Mountain.
“This is going to be one of the jewels of the system, for sure,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the Open Space District.
Purchased in six different chunks from three families, the new park puts hundreds of acres of wilderness within minutes of urban communities while preserving critical watersheds and wildlife habitat, officials said.
Like other public parks that were in the path of the 2017 fires, it will serve as a living laboratory for those studying wildfire recovery and resilience in the face of climate change.
It has an extensive network of trails that will support hiking, cycling and horseback riding, among other “passive” activities, Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker said.
Its existence fulfills a long-envisioned goal by park planners to locate a regional park in that part of Sonoma County, as demonstrated by a star placed on a map more than five decades ago at that location, Whitaker said.
The park property wasn’t set aside until much more recently, beginning in 2002 with the Open Space District’s purchase of a conservation easement along a critical stretch of upper Mark West Creek to ensure its protection.
The first land purchase was 340 acres from the Cresta family in 2007, followed by 461 acres bought in 2009 from John and Martha McCullough, who also donated $850,000 from the proceeds toward the park project.
All 1,192 acres now included in the park were at one point owned by the family of Bill Cresta, 90, whose parents, two uncles and aunts purchased the spread than 75 years ago. The family lived in San Francisco but frequently visited the Russian River.
Parcels were sold and divided up over the years, with the largest chunk — 736 acres — ending up with the McCulloughs. The Crestas also kept three parcels for many years, though all of it now has been sold to the county.
It wasn’t always easy to get everybody in the family on board with the idea of conservation sale, Bill Cresta said, but now the land is finally “all back together,” and “it won’t be subdivided — that’s the main thing.”
“I know those people that started this are looking down and saying, ‘Thank you, Bill,’ ” Cresta said.
Completion of the park puzzle might have taken still longer but for the Tubbs fire. When it swept through the area in October 2017, it destroyed homes and other buildings on the last three parcels purchased by the county, including 275 acres on which the McCulloughs still lived and pastured horses and cows.