Owners give up developmental rights to protect critical watershed land in Mark West

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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.

He paused, pointing with his boot toward native bunch grasses and wildflowers that have appeared since the fir canopy was removed.

The fir, however, won’t quit, he said, pointing out 1- to 2-inch sprouts he intends to eliminate with pruning shears in the spring.

Nearby, three large madrone trunks have risen from the stump of a much larger, 3-foot-wide tree. It had been cut 50 years ago when the Mayacamas woodlands were still harvested for firewood to heat the area’s hop kilns, as had been done since the 1880s, he said.

Krauss and Shumsky purchased the property in two pieces, in 1972 and 1986, and named it Sunsrays, owing to the land’s bench, where their home sits at 1,500 feet above sea level and, most of the time, above the fog.

It’s in a so-called “banana belt,” enabling the orchard of more than 200 trees to grow apples, pears, figs, cherries, plums, peaches, pomegranates and citrus, which Shumsky sold for years at farmers markets.

Not far from the house, Krauss built a simple wooden deck several decades ago, facing west so they could comfortably enjoy sunsets and a view all the way to Jonive Ridge near the ocean.

On Oct. 9, 2017, they watched the horrifying spectacle of the Tubbs fire burning from right to left toward Fountaingrove. Krauss said he could hear propane tanks exploding and feel the blast concussion.

They were in an evacuation zone, but the flames came no closer than a mile away, he said.

Krauss was one of Sonoma County’s first planners employed when environmental impact reports became required for new development and the county’s first general plan was adopted, with an accompanying political upheaval.

He was environmental manager of a Lake County gold mine for 20 years and spent his final 10 years in conservation working for local nonprofits.

His personal vegetation management project began in earnest in retirement and has now cleared about 10 acres of woodlands.

The couple had long intended to donate a conservation easement for their property, and Krauss said it came at the sacrifice of about two-thirds of the land’s value. Barring the voluntarily imposed restriction, their land could be subdivided, creating a pair of 20-acre parcels they could sell and retain the balance for their modest home.

The value of undeveloped rural land hinges on its attributes, such as a building site and vineyard potential, said Jeff Bounsall, a Santa Rosa Realtor and land consultant.

“You are definitely giving up value” with an easement, he said.

Krauss said his land has those attributes, and noted that a nearby 40-acre parcel with a house sold last fall for $1.2 million.

The donation, he said, is “a gift from California that I can give back to future generations.”

There won’t be any public access to the property, however.

The donation is the land trust’s 45th conservation easement, bringing the total to 7,160 acres.

“We need more landowners like Ray who think about the value of the land that way,” Patashnik said.

There are another 40 acres of forest in need of clearing, and Ray Krauss would welcome assistance.

“If you want to come out on a weekend, I have a spare chainsaw,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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