Ambling through a forest on his rural Mark West area property, Ray Krauss bent over to pinch a fir tree sprout and pull it from the rain-damp ground. If the tiny green seedling grew much larger, Krauss would have to nip it with pruning shears, and were it to become a substantial tree he would fell it with a chainsaw.
But the 76-year-old retiree, who wears a bright red bicycle cap to keep his bald head warm, is considered a patron saint — not a plunderer — of the 63 acres of critical watershed land he has stewarded for nearly half a century.
“It’s been an utter privilege to live here all these years,” Krauss said. “It’s such a special location.”
Were the land and the wildlife on it able to speak, they might thank him for his dedication.
Sonoma Land Trust, which has protected more than 50,000 acres of land for future generations, embraced the early Christmas gift it got last week from Krauss and his wife, Barbara Shumsky. The couple donated a conservation easement, prohibiting development and guaranteeing the land will remain largely unchanged in perpetuity, foregoing the potential for substantial profit.
“We have a special affection for the Mark West watershed,” Ariel Patashnik, the Santa Rosa nonprofit’s land acquisition program manager, said while visiting the property on a foggy afternoon.
The 40-square-mile watershed, stretching from the Napa County line to the Russian River near Forestville, encompasses Mark West Creek and multiple tributaries, all emptying into the Laguna de Santa Rosa about five miles from its confluence with the river.
The Krauss-Shumsky land, which slopes from a level bench in the Mayacmas Mountains down to a Mark West Creek tributary called Monan’s Rill, is home to mountain lions, black bears and bobcats. It’s part of a largely undeveloped corridor enabling wildlife to migrate from Lake County to Marin County.
A patchwork of habitats, the property includes native oak woodlands, fir and mixed hardwood forest, chaparral and grassland. Located just a half-hour from downtown Santa Rosa, about a mile up a private road off St. Helena Road, the land is a refuge apart from the urban world.
Its underlying attribute, Krauss said, is the basalt spewed by a volcano over the mountains some 8 million years ago. With open fractures that absorb rain water like a sponge during winter and allow it to seep out during summer, the rock endows Mark West Creek with a year-round flow that makes it an official “priority stream” for the recovery of endangered coho salmon.
To the Sonoma Land Trust, one of the property’s prime attractions is the result of Ray Krauss’ personal assault, with fire and hand tools, on the invasive fir trees that he saw attempting to overrun his woodlands.
“The firs were choking off the light, using all the water, making it impossible for anything else to grow,” he said, standing in a sloped forest of various oaks, madrone, bay, maple and manzanita trees.
Eight years ago, he cleared the area of firs and low-hanging tree limbs — a practice known as “vegetation management” and now regarded as an antidote to raging California wildfires.
Walking through the thinned woods is as easy as it was for the Native Americans who honed fire-control techniques that white settlers largely abandoned, Krauss said.