Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes Alcatraz Island, the Marin Headlands, Muir Woods and many other Bay Area landmarks, has added one more piece to its portfolio: a large chunk of the Peninsula south of Devil's Slide.
Negotiations to incorporate Rancho Corral de Tierra into the park took ten years and ended plans by a developer to build pricey homes in the Half Moon Bay area.
On the day I visited Rancho Corral de Tierra, a thick fog hung under the peak of Montara Mountain, blocking what might otherwise have been views straight out to the Farallon Islands and Mount Tamalpais.
But with 3,800 acres of Cypress trees and rolling hills, you could almost imagine what the California coast looked like when Spanish explorers wandered by just north of here in 1769.
Close Calls with Development
It was almost a golf course.
Audrey Rust, president emeritus of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, known as POST, says she’d been eyeing this piece of land since she began working at the trust 25 years ago. Flat in the lowlands with a scenic backdrop of ridges, it attracted development plans of every stripe, says Rust.
Rust, and others, believed the ranch provided such valuable habitat and open space that it might qualify to become part of the national park system.
“It’s only seven miles south from the border of San Francisco,” says Rust, “and it's teeming with wildlife. Mountain lions are abundant. Deer. Every critter you can think of that's native to this area.”
Acquiring the ranch was a huge project, requiring fund-raising on a scale closer to what you might expect from a major hospital or university. POST launched a campaign called Saving the Endangered Coast with the goal of raising 200 million dollars and saving 20 thousand acres of land, including the ranch.
They couldn’t have asked for a better fundraising moment. Rust raised $100 million from Silicon Valley: $50 million each from the Packard and Moore Foundations.
The funding let POST buy the sprawling ranch for $29 million and then hold onto it for nine years until the state government and Congress provided the money to acquire it for the same price. After much political wrangling, Congressional approval to add it to the national park system finally came through last summer. Rust was ecstatic.
“[We were] jumping around and sometimes crying. But now, it just feels right to know this beautiful place will be here forever.”
A Southern Entryway to Golden Gate National Recreation Area
From the National Park’s perspective, the addition of the ranch is historic. Alex Picavet, with the GGNRA, calls the ranch “the largest land acquisition for Golden Gate National Recreation Area pretty much since it began.”
As national parks go, Golden Gate is a little unusual. Its 82,000 acres of parkland are scattered around the Bay Area, from Muir Woods to Alcatraz Island and Ocean Beach in San Francisco. But the new land on the Peninsula means that about half of the park -- which was founded in 1972 -- is now in San Mateo County, with this new chunk forming the southernmost border.
“We’re calling this the southern entryway to Golden Gate National Recreation Area,” says Picavet.
Now that Rust and others have taken the long view, people like Susie Bennett can focus on the small things.
As we hiked up the ridge, Bennett, a natural resource specialist for the GGNRA, stopped and pointed to a little yellow flower with heart-shaped petals, “this area’s local plant celebrity.”
Hickman's potentilla is found in only two places in the world: here, and in Monterey. It’s the ranch’s only federally recognized endangered species. “It’s a plant we’d like to focus some management on,” says Bennett.
In taking over this land, the National Park Service is doing a lot more than just putting up new signs.
There will be scientists studying the land, and workers clearing out invasive species. The system of informal trails that locals have used for years will get an overhaul.
Balancing the Needs of Habitat and Local Dog-walkers
And like any new neighbor, the park is going to have to win over local residents, especially on the topic of dogs.
Bill and Peggy Bechtell live in a comfortable ranch home in Montara, just across the street from the park. They’ve been walking their dog, Kalie, here for years. They say they're apprehensive about their new neighbors.
“We've had nothing but great community here for 32 years, and the minute they come, they ruin it,” says Peggy Bechtell.
Bechtell is referring to an incident, about a week ago, that made national headlines.
According to the GGNRA, Gary Hesterberg of Montara was walking his two dogs off leash, in violation of park rules. A ranger tried to give him a ticket, but he gave her a false name and refused to stop. Critics call it excessive force, and a local congresswoman wants an independent investigation.
National parks, as a rule, don’t allow off-leash dogs. It’s been a sticking point for some in the Bay Area for more than a decade and, as a result, the park has made exceptions in places like Fort Funston and the Marin Headlands. A final, formal dog policy has long been in development.
Officials had originally hoped that the new park addition at Rancho Corral de Tierra would follow the more restrictive National Park standards, with limited, leash-only dog areas. Park officials say dogs can interfere with efforts to nurture and restore the area's native ecosystem.
Bill Bechtell, who has been taking his dogs here since the 1980s, says that policy is unfair to Montara locals.
“There’s plenty of room for open space, animals, wildlife, everything. And recreation!” he says.
Last week, park officials announced their intention to include the ranch in the broader environmental review of off-leash dog areas in parts of GGNRA, which opens up the possibility that off-leash areas could eventually be established at Rancho Corral de Tierra.
“It’s not going to be overnight that we all come together and speak the same language,” says GGNRA’s Picavet. “But we are looking forward to building that relationship together. We’re here for the long haul.”
Over the next year, GGNRA will be working out parking, signage, and other issues, including dog policy. The property is currently open to visitors.