9,898-acre tract added to Big Sur parklands

Palo Corona Ranch will connect 13 parks and open spaces

August 11, 2002|By Michael McCabe | Michael McCabe,SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

SAN FRANCISCO - A 9,898-acre tract of rough and primitive Big Sur land, studded with oak and redwood and lying in the center of an area ringed by public open spaces, has been acquired for $37 million by conservation groups from cellular phone pioneer Craig McCaw, conservation officials have reported.

In a year or so, when the Palo Corona Ranch, as the area is called, is open to the public, miles of hiking trails and other paths meandering through the property will connect 13 parks and open spaces from Carmel to Big Sur and beyond, effectively doubling the size of these sprawling parklands overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

"It is home to golden eagles," said Corey Brown, executive director of the Big Sur Land Trust, which, with the Nature Conservancy, bought the property.

The land also is home to "some bald eagles, an occasional condor, and more than 500 species of plants, the threatened steelhead trout and a fantastic array of wild lands, including a thousand acres of redwoods, oak woodlands and Monterey pine forest."

The property, about one-third the size of San Francisco, was bought with the help of various loans.

Gov. Gray Davis has pledged $32 million from Proposition 40 funds to pay for most of the property.

Proposition 40 was the $2.6 billion bond issue approved by voters in March to help protect the California coast and parks and water and air quality. The money, along with $5 million from the Monterey Regional Park District, will help pay off the loans.

The purchase price, $37 million, is substantially less than the $65 million McCaw was asking when it was on the market recently, sources said. In the end, McCaw decided to sell it for far less in order to protect it from development, his primary goal, Brown said.

The land trust and the Nature Conservancy often buy up large parcels of property to save them from commercial development.

"This is three times larger than any other land acquisition ever made by our land trust," Brown said.

"This is an incredible acquisition because it is truly the gateway to the Big Sur. Eventually, you will be able to walk a block south of Carmel into this stunning open space and into many other parks, on down to the Ventana Wilderness area, part of the Los Padres National Forest, which extends for 60 miles south," Brown said.

Among the parks and wildlife areas it will connect are: Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel River State Beach, Garrapata State Park, Hatton Canyon State Park and the Joshua Creek Canyon Ecological Reserve.

Brown said that in future weeks, work will begin on plans for management and public access, and public comment will be solicited.

This is expected to take about 12 to 18 months. At some point, most if not all of the 9,898-acre property is expected to be turned over to the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

The Big Sur Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy also will begin a $44 million fund-raising effort from public and private sources to pay for an endowment to maintain the land, as well as the price of the land itself, said Liz Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Nature Conservancy.

McCaw began buying pieces of the property in 1996 and then added seven more properties to it as late as 2000, Brown said.

Sources said it is difficult to say exactly why McCaw sold the land, other than an interest in conservation. McCaw had planned to build a house on it at one time.

McCaw bought a large portion of the property from the Fish family, which had owned it since the 1920s.

"Both Craig McCaw and the Fish families were very good stewards of the land," Brown said.

McCaw told conservation officials, "It has been my dream since the first day I walked on the ranch to see that it eventually ends up in some form of public ownership."

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