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Longtime ranching family chooses to make their land available for open space
On April 21, Sonoma Land Trust will close escrow on the 200-acre Fitzsimmons Ranch, which is an inholding of private land within 2,000-acre Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve. The expansion of the park has been a key priority for Sonoma Land Trust, ensuring that future generations of visitors and wildlife can thrive and adapt in this important corridor of the Mayacamas Mountains. Immediately upon acquiring the $1.13 million ranch, Sonoma Land Trust will convey the property to Sonoma County Regional Parks for inclusion into the park. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted on March 16 to accept the Land Trust’s donation of Fitzsimmons Ranch to Regional Parks.
Fitzsimmons Ranch has a rich modern history. Homesteaded in 1912 by Max Arthur Fitzsimmons and his wife Maud William Fitzsimmons, the couple received a land grant that was signed by the U.S. President in 1913. While they returned to Santa Rosa to live shortly thereafter, Max, Maud and subsequent generations of their family maintained the ranch for cattle grazing and family visits. It is this faint footprint on the land that has made it so compelling to Sonoma Land Trust and Regional Parks.
“This is the epitome of wild land, which is rare to come by in our county anymore,” says Land Trust acquisitions director John McCaull. “We are very grateful to this family for keeping the land intact and undeveloped — and to their commitment to making sure the land becomes part of the park for everyone to enjoy.”
The Fitzsimmons Family
“There is a lot of history up there,” says Maud and Max’s granddaughter, Marda Mitchell Gallagher of Santa Rosa, who, along with her sister and brother, is selling the property to Sonoma Land Trust. “When our grandfather was homesteading it, he planted a cottonwood tree that grew to be 75 feet tall and was a key landmark on the property.” Unfortunately, last year’s Glass Fire burned the century-old tree to the ground. “It was devastating, such a beautiful old tree and now it’s gone,” says Marda.
The recent Nuns and Glass fires were hard on the property and led to the family selling it a little earlier than anticipated. The Nuns Fire of 2017 burned through most of the fencing, requiring the family to sell off their cattle (“We were too old to rebuild 200 acres of fences,” says Marda). Then, the Glass Fire last year burned every remaining fencepost — along with the barn.
“It is hard to give up the ranch, but we are all very happy to be selling it to Sonoma Land Trust. It’s the perfect answer for us,” says Marda. “My siblings and I all want it to remain open space — that was never in question. We’re thrilled that it’s going to such good caretakers and that other people will be able to enjoy it as part of the park,” proudly pointing out that Fitzsimmons Ranch plays the very important role of connecting Hood Mountain Regional Park with Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.
The path to parkland
Fitzsimmons Ranch has been a high-priority acquisition target for Regional Parks for many years and they are an enthusiastic partner in this acquisition process.
“We are incredibly grateful to the Fitzsimmons Family for contributing a vital inholding within Hood Mountain Regional Park,” says Sonoma County Regional Parks director Bert Whitaker. “With their contribution, we are able to expand one of the largest swaths of preserved wilderness and intact wildlife habitat in the Mayacamas Mountains in very close proximity to Santa Rosa. Additionally, this region has proven to be a critical buffer for firefighters defending neighboring communities from wildfires. Strategically placed and managed parks and undeveloped natural lands have become critical to our community’s resiliency as we experience impacts from climate change.”
Natural resources and development threat
Blessed with stunning views as far away as San Francisco, the ranch is part of an 85-mile wildlife movement corridor that connects Point Reyes on the Marin Coast to the interior mountains of Lake and Napa counties. It also possesses rare plant communities and is a significant source of water resources.
With over a mile of steelhead-supporting Bear Creek running through the property and numerous springs, “We never had to haul water up there — hay, yes,” laughs Marda, “but not water. There is pure water bubbling out of the mountain even in drought years.”
Fitzsimmons Ranch lies in the Sonoma Creek watershed of the Mayacamas Mountains, with mountain meadows, chaparral and rare serpentine areas. Protecting this L-shaped ranch is critical to protecting and expanding the linkages for wildlife habitat across the Mayacamas. Rapidly increasing development is increasingly stressing wildlife and fragmenting open space and natural habitats in this range. If this property is not protected, the current zoning would allow for homesite or other development that would threaten watershed health, biological diversity, climate resiliency and management integrity of Hood Mountain Regional Park and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.
“Fitzsimmons Ranch is a beautiful property with substantial water resources that can only be fully appreciated by visiting and experiencing it directly,” says Dan Winterson who manages the Bay Area Conservation Portfolio at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “I’m so grateful that the landowners and Sonoma Land Trust were able to work together to protect this important habitat and allow for public access in the future.”
Philanthropy is making this acquisition possible
It is a testament to the high natural value of this land and the passion of Land Trust supporters for its protection that this $1.13 million project has been made possible through private donors Mary Love, Jake Warner and Toni Ihara, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, instead of the more usual state and federal funding sources.
Mary Love, who first became aware of Sonoma Land Trust through its work to identify and protect wildlife corridors, says, “I wanted this gift to the Land Trust from my late husband David and myself to help save our natural wild lands from urban sprawl, which can have such a negative impact on our wild animals and their natural habitat. Without wildlife and their rightful environment, none of us can thrive or survive because we are all a part of the whole.”
This is how parks grow
At the completion of this project, Sonoma Land Trust will have contributed three properties in recent years to expand Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve:
- 162-acre Santa Rosa Creek Headwaters in 2017
- 40-acre Santa Rosa Creek Redwoods in 2018
- 200-acre Fitzsimmons Ranch in 2021
“Through this pandemic, we’ve learned that nature is not an amenity, but a deep-rooted need,” says the Land Trust’s McCaull. “People have a tremendous desire to get their feet on the ground and breathe in the scents of the forest and catch a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The owners of Fitzsimmons Ranch are creating a beautiful and healthful legacy for us all.”
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About Sonoma Land Trust
Sonoma Land Trust works in alliance with nature to restore the integrity of the land for climate resiliency and is also committed to ensuring more equitable access to the outdoors. Since 1976, Sonoma Land Trust has protected more than 56,000 acres of scenic, natural, agricultural and open land for future generations. Sonoma Land Trust is the recipient of the 2019 Land Trust Alliance Award of Excellence and is accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. For more information, please visit www.sonomalandtrust.org.
About Sonoma County Regional Parks
Sonoma County Regional Parks includes more than 50 parks and beaches from Petaluma to Gualala and Sonoma to Bodega Bay. Many offer wild landscapes and miles of trails. Others feature sports fields, playgrounds and campgrounds. Regional Parks also manages the county’s largest ocean marina and largest extracurricular environmental education center. Visit www.sonomacountyparks.org.