The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District (District), a special district of the County dedicated to protecting our working and natural lands forever, has received approval from its Board of Directors to purchase a conservation easement over Howlett Forest – 1,380 acres in northwest Sonoma County that contains one of the last remaining intact old-growth forests in the county. The District is contributing $4.5 million toward the $6.13 million purchase price, with additional funding obtained by Sonoma Land Trust (SLT) from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation ($1.28 million) and The San Francisco Foundation ($50,000). The District also received a $300,000 grant from California State Parks’ Habitat Conservation Fund and a 5% ($365,000) donation from the landowner to help with the purchase. This extraordinary deal conserves thousands of important, old-growth trees within an intact forest, 5.75 miles of healthy riparian corridors, and the headwaters of two of the five main tributaries to the Gualala River. The easement also helps ensure the economic viability of the local forest industry by retaining good jobs through long-term sustainable timber harvesting.
“We are not often presented with opportunities to protect what remains of our treasured old-growth coastal redwood forests,” said Bill Keene, General Manager for the District. “That is what makes this project so significant and special – there are very few properties like this left. By partnering with Sonoma Land Trust to bring in outside funding to leverage our taxpayers’ dollars, we are able to conserve thousands of majestic, old-growth redwoods and Douglas-fir trees and two main tributaries of the Gualala River, both of which provide important habitat for steelhead, coho salmon, owls, bobcats, and even black bears. We’re also able to ensure that this healthy forest will continue to sequester carbon on our behalf as we face the challenges of climate change.
“Sonoma Land Trust has recognized the importance and urgency of this special project since its early days,” said Dave Koehler, Executive Director of SLT. “We are thrilled to be partnering with the District, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and The San Francisco Foundation to achieve permanent protection of Howlett Forest’s towering redwoods and pristine creeks. With the property’s outstanding habitat values and adjacency to Buckeye Forest, formerly known as Preservation Ranch, it is a crucial addition to a complex of over 50,000 acres of protected land in the region. This project leaves a wonderful legacy of old-growth redwood protection and sustainable forest management for our children.”
California’s coast was once home to over two million acres of coast redwoods stretching from Big Sur to the Oregon border. Now only 5% of the original forest – roughly 120,000 acres – remains. Of the remaining virgin forest in private ownership, only a small percentage is protected, and Howlett Forest is one of the last remaining intact old-growth forests in Sonoma County. With over 2,560 trees greater than four feet in diameter, including more than 870 redwood trees with a diameter greater than five feet, and creek corridors that have never been logged, there is no greater priority for forestland conservation in Sonoma County.
Howlett Forest is also unique in the Sonoma Coast Range because, unlike much of the intensely harvested forestland in this region, it still contains stands of old-growth coastal redwoods within its mixed-age forest, providing the rare and important structural characteristics of old-growth stands. This diversity in age and size is truly unique on the Sonoma Coast, which is why this property is so important to protect. The varied structures, snags, and understory found in the property’s forest, and especially in the stands of older trees, provide nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat for a diverse range of plant and animal species, including northern spotted owl and pileated woodpecker, as well as large mammals such as the American badger, bobcat, mountain lion, and black bear.
The property contains 5.75 miles of headwater streams of Buckeye Creek and Rockpile Creek, two of the five main tributaries that drain to the Gualala River. The river and its tributaries provide habitat for anadromous coho salmon and steelhead trout, as well as resident populations of rainbow trout. The healthy riparian habitat on the property supports these sensitive species.
“When you step foot on the Howlett property, you realize right away that it is irreplaceable. The incredible number of old growth trees in this forest is a testament to the owners’ lifetime love of the land and the trees,” said Lynda Hopkins, 5th District Supervisor and a member of the District’s Board of Directors. “Preserving this critical woodland adjacent to other protected lands such as Buckeye Forest helps us maintain a contiguous stretch of healthy forests that will filter our water, clean our air, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, and help to mitigate the effects of climate change.”
Before George Howlett passed away in 2008, he had wanted to ensure his ranch remained intact and managed in a manner that would protect the trees and mature ecosystem, while also continuing to provide income. He determined the sale of a conservation easement was the best tool to achieve both objectives. However, the development of a conservation easement project takes time. So in 2014, in order to forestall an imminent timber harvest and allow time for the easement to be negotiated, SLT obtained a project-related loan from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and then re-loaned those funds to the landowner. Now, the District and SLT have partnered to assemble the necessary funding to purchase the easement, with the District providing sales tax dollars and a grant from the Habitat Conservation Fund, and SLT securing funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and The San Francisco Foundation, to prevent future subdivision or intense, destructive harvesting on the property.
As a result, the property will be protected from subdivision and development, and the old-growth redwoods will not be cut. In a region of the county where vineyard conversion and timber harvesting is threatening critical habitat and natural resources, the protection of these remarkable trees is monumental. Such activities would eliminate and degrade critical habitat for special-status species, reduce the carbon sequestration potential of the land, and remove forever these magnificent trees that can live to be 2,000 years old. The District’s conservation easement protects the property’s significant natural resources in perpetuity by limiting development and ensuring sustainable harvest practices that retain old-growth redwood trees and old-growth forest characteristics.
About the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District
The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District permanently protects the diverse agricultural, natural resource and scenic open space lands of Sonoma County for future generations. The District is responsible for the perpetual protection of over 111,000 acres of land throughout our region. These agricultural and open space lands are protected through a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1990 and reauthorized in 2006. For more information, please visit www.sonomaopenspace.org
About Sonoma Land Trust
Sonoma Land Trust believes land is the foundation of our economy and our community’s health and well-being. Since 1976, Sonoma Land Trust has protected over 50,000 acres of scenic, natural, agricultural and open land for future generations, and is accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission.