Hood Mountain Regional Park to expand 253 acres with Sonoma Land Trust purchase of historic ranch
Sonoma Land Trust has inked a deal to purchase 654 acres of ridgetop property near Sugarloaf State Park and Hood Mountain Regional Park, coming one step closer to uniting the biggest swath of protected wildlife habitat in Sonoma Valley.
Known as the McCormick Ranch, after the McCormick family who homesteaded the land in the 1840s, the property straddles both Napa and Sonoma counties, and affords breathtaking views of both valleys from its highest point – Big Hill – at 2,500 feet; views of the city skylines to the west and Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument to the east. The purchase is scheduled to close in November 2020 and ownership will then be transferred to local park agencies. The 253-acre portion of the land in Sonoma County will be added to the adjacent 7,800-acre Hood Mountain Regional Park and the 401-acre Napa County parcel will go to Napa County Regional Park. Both agencies will jointly manage the new parkland, with the hopes of one day expanding the multi-use Bay Area Ridge Trail and developing backcountry camping opportunities.
“The views from McCormick Ranch are unparalleled and will provide park visitors an experience unlike any other in the Mayacamas,” said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks.
Acquiring such a large and wild landscape along the top of a mountain range is particularly important because of the many benefits it will bring the people and wildlife, said John McCaull, Sonoma Land Trust’s acquisition manager for the Sonoma Valley. “From scenic vistas to new hiking opportunities, clean water, climate adaptation and managing land to reduce wildfire risks, McCormick Ranch has it all.”
“This is a chance for people to have to have a little bit of wilderness experience in their backyard,” he added. Preliminary planning for the parkland envisions extending the Bay Area Ridge Trail three miles from its terminus in Hood Mountain Regional Park to ultimately create a 20-mile backcountry multi-use loop through both Sugarloaf State Park and Hood Mountain Regional Park, that would afford two- to three-day backcountry trips, complete with small undeveloped campsites. With this acquisition, including adjacent parklands and protected lands through conservation easements, close to 10,000 conjoined acres have been protected in that area.
Protecting wildlife corridors and water sourcesIn addition to opportunities for human recreation, the new parkland will also help ensure the animal residents of the area can continue to move freely between the two counties and through the Mayacamas Mountains, a significant wildlife corridor for the area. The ranch is located in the center of the Marin Coast-Blue Ridge Critical Linkage, an 85-mile wildlife movement corridor stretching from Point Reyes to the Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument in Lake County.
Protecting the ranch is particularly important for the survival of wide-ranging carnivores. “When we are tracking wildlife like bears, mountain lions, badgers, this is the big habitat stronghold,” said McCaull. SLT has dedicated decades to preserving important areas of habitat throughout Sonoma County, with the long-term vision of creating a way for wildlife to move freely and minimize conflict with humans. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is contributing $3.5 million toward the McCormick Ranch project, a sizeable and unusual sum for the agency, because they recognized its significance in wildlife protection, said McCaull. Landscape connectivity is the most widely cited strategy to achieve climate adaptation, because it allows for the migration, movement and dispersal of wildlife and plants, resulting in healthier ecosystems.
The property, which often sees three times as much rainfall as the adjacent valley floors, also supports a largely pristine mosaic of native plant communities, from oak woodland and forest to chaparral and grassland, and contains tributaries and stretches of Santa Rosa Creek, Iron Mine Creek and Bear Creek, flowing into the Russian River, Napa River and Sonoma Creek. Just as the Sierras collect and store much of the California water supply, the Mayacama Mountains are critical to the water resources and river health of Napa and Sonoma counties.
Additionally, McCormick Ranch proved critical to Cal Fire’s efforts to combat the Nuns Fire in 2017. Its 2,500-foot-high summit was used to create a fire break and staging area that prevented the blaze from crossing into Napa County and threatening St. Helena.
“From the top of ‘Big Hill’ on McCormick Ranch, visitors are treated to 360-degree views of the Sonoma Coast, San Francisco Bay and the Sierra,” says John Woodbury, general manager of Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District. “We are grateful to the Perrys for making this incomparable landscape available to us all.”
McCormick Ranch history goes back generationsThe Perry family, the matriarchs of McCormick Ranch, made this notable sale possible.
McCormick Ranch has been owned by members of the same family for 175 years. William McCormick and his family first settled the original ranch in 1844 and began raising cattle and sheep. The family was ordered by the Mexican government to leave the land shortly thereafter, but returned to the property after the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846. The ranch eventually passed to William’s son, Henry. When Henry died in a hunting accident in 1879, his wife, Molly Hudson McCormick, took over managing the ranch.
Sadly, before leaving on his ill-fated trip, Henry had sold his herd of cattle and buried the proceeds – no one knew where. With five children and no money, help or herd, Molly became a shrewd businessperson to keep her family, ranch and butcher shop afloat. When she passed away in 1905, her son John worked the ranch for another generation, raising his daughters Ina and Edna (“Babe,” as Edna became known) to have a keen appreciation for the ranch’s rugged beauty as well.
Babe McCormick Learned lived on the ranch as the Napa Valley transformed into a world-renowned wine-growing region. Babe’s pioneer spirit endured: She could be found corralling rattlesnakes, searching for Henry’s buried treasure with a metal detector, and ranching with her husband and son until she lost them both during one tragic year. After their deaths in 1975, Babe and her daughter, Sandra, continued running the ranch and eventually sold 1,000 acres off to Sonoma Ag + Open Space to expand Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, now known as the McCormick Addition.
Fifth-generation Sandra Learned married Jim Perry in 1986 and, in 1997, formed a nonprofit foundation, Acorn Soupe, to provide environmental education to children in Napa and Sonoma Counties. Over the years, hundreds of schoolchildren visited McCormick Ranch to learn how to be good stewards of the land.
After Sandra’s death in 2015, Jim and their sons, Scott and Cole, began exploring the possibility of a conservation sale of their beloved family ranch to protect it forever, and reached out to SLT.
“My late wife came from a long line of strong women who worked the ranch,” said Jim Perry. “We knew how much they loved this land and wanted to preserve it for future generations.”
SLT has spent much of the last three years working to assemble the major funding needed and has secured commitments for $12.75 million. That includes a landowner bargain sale of $3.625 million, $6.875 million from public funding sources, $2 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and $250,000 from an individual donor, leaving an additional $1.75 million to be raised by next year.
Upon acquiring the property, SLT will immediately transfer the ranch to the Sonoma and Napa county park agencies, which will jointly own and manage the land. The property will also be forever protected by two conservation easements held by Sonoma Ag + Open Space and the Land Trust of Napa County, which will spell out specific conservation values and stewardship objectives for habitat and wildlife conservation. After the purchase is completed, Sonoma County Regional Parks will initiate a planning process with public engagement to develop a management plan for the property. Once the plan and any necessary infrastructure improvements are completed, McCormick Ranch will open to the public, realizing the conservation legacy of the McCormick Family.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.