Bohemia Ranch has a long history in Sonoma County. Once open land with a beautiful waterfall, it was held by absentee owners and was subject to much trespass and abuse, with the property becoming eroded and littered with junk. It’s beauty and wildness have not gone unnoticed, however. The Open Space District made an effort to acquire it as a county park in 1999 and failed. As part of that effort, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart headlined a benefit concert to raise money for a purchase, but the property was sold to another. Over the last ten years the property, under this private ownership, has been slowly cleaned up and restoration has begun. It is an unique property with a spectacular waterfall, rare plant communities, thick fir and redwood forests, and oak grasslands with spectacular views. Its 862 acres are a substantial portion of the watershed of Dutch Bill Creek, where state and federal agencies have spent millions of conservation dollars to bring back coho salmon.
Starting in 2009, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, community activists and the Sonoma Land Trust have been trying to create a public park at Bohemia Ranch, also known as Waterfall Park. With the current financial crisis in our government agencies, the conventional approach of buying parkland with public money was no longer feasible and the process stalled. A new approach for protecting open space was needed.
Ted and Phyllis Swindells, the owners of Bohemia Ranch, realized that not only were resources for acquiring more land dwindling in the public sector but that there was no provision for funding stewardship and no plan in place for land management and immediate public access. Sonoma County Regional parks had its hands full with the succession acquisition of hundreds of acres by the Open Space District for parks over the past ten years.
In early 2010, Swindells engaged David Katz, a private conservation consultant to work with him to develop a private approach to preserving the ranch and making it accessible to the community in some fashion.
The solution that emerged, working in concert with private land partners and community groups, will create a beautiful and unique Waterfall Preserve with an ample stewardship budget and a very competent nonprofit, LandPaths, as a owner/manager. “It was exciting to work with landowners and buyers that were both sophisticated business people and very committed to conservation,” Katz noted. “Their generosity combined with their interest in making the land accessible to the public is inspiring.”
Swindells is donating 42% of the value of the bulk of the land (550 acres) as a gift to the community along with a gift of $50,000 for stewardship. The W. Parish family from San Francisco is buying the remaining portion of the land for a rural retreat and will seed a fund for stewardship that has been established at the Community Foundation Sonoma County to receive donations and to manage the endowment for the Preserve.
The lead park and land manager will be LandPaths, the accomplished nonprofit organization who manages open space throughout the county. LandPaths has ably demonstrated that it can manage public recreation and land stewardship in a very cost effective approach that engages a wide range of citizens in stewarding and enjoying our native lands. Their “People Powered Parks” approach engages volunteers and local resources to manage community parks and open space preserves.
The Parishes have been long involved in education and park preservation and are strongly committed to wild nature and are inspired by the idea of restoring and managing the land in conjunction with a private open space group. They have entered into an agreement with LandPaths to allow trails across their property that will be part of the outdoor recreation activities on the site.
The transaction is a complex one – the Sonoma Land Trust will purchase a conservation easement over 550 acres of the property using a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The easement will remove all the development potential of the land, allowing only conservation and managed recreational uses to remain. The title for the property will pass to LandPaths, who will have management responsibility for the preserve
Swindell’s motivation is conservation of land that he loves. He originally donated a conservation easement over the entire property worth $2.5 million and has spent millions over the past ten years in cleaning up and restoring the property. Swindells has formally committed to continuing to fund restoration at the property in the future with a determination to create, restore and manage public access to the Preserve that inspires understanding of the land and a sense of responsibility for its future.
Waterfall Park is part of our community to take care of now and always.