The secret of the working group's success, according to Retecki, lies in its ability to focus on particular projects that have major regional significance and strong local support, and to stay focused until these projects are brought to fruition. The acquisition of the Willow Creek property is a good example.
That took three years. Authorities in Sacramento had to be persuaded of the 3,373-acre property's values, a deal with the landowner had to be negotiated, the $21 million had to be raised to meet the purchase price, and an interim operation and management plan had to be devised. Only by working effectively together could those interested in protecting this land have done all this. "We spread the lead responsibilities around according to our strengths," Retecki said.
Beauty and History
Willow Creek flows into the Russian River one mile upstream from Jenner, a small coastal community at the river's mouth. To reach the upper Willow Creek watershed from Highway 1, you take Willow Creek Road, which runs inland just south of the river, follows the river for a bit, then twists upward through meadows and steep forested canyons.
You can enter upper Willow Creek at Freezeout Flat, park in the staging area, then hike for about two miles to a broad ridge with clusters of trees, mostly conifers, scattered here and there. These tree clusters are known locally as Islands in the Sky. They are all you will see from the ridge on some gray days, tall trees rising like islands out of a soft sea of fog. On clear days, however, you can have views south all the way to Bodega Bay, north to the Russian River Valley, and west to the ocean horizon. The entire 8.7-square-mile Willow Creek watershed lies around you.
About 2,200 acres of the lower Willow Creek watershed have been part of Sonoma Coast State Beach for more than 20 years. Like many other protected natural places, they were purchased as parkland in the wake of a battle that stopped proposed development. A huge subdivision, with golf course and shopping center, was planned in the 1960s, and a residential complex in the 1970s. The developers were rousted by local residents who felt strongly that neither was needed.
The upper watershed had been in private ownership since early European settlement, most recently by Mendocino Redwood Company, which bought it in 1998 from Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, along with a total of about 235,000 acres on the north coast. Mendocino Redwood was founded by members of the Fisher family, founders of the Gap, with the goal of proving that timber harvests could be managed sustainably and still be profitable.
Several land-preservation groups and agencies had kept their eyes on the upper Willow Creek property for many years. When Coastal Conservancy project managers Retecki and Don Coppock put together a list of potential Sonoma County acquisitions in 1987, Willow Creek was on it, but the owners weren't ready to sell.
Fourteen years later, the West County/Coastal Working Group agreed to study and plan for conservation measures within 330,000 acres, 110,000 south of the Russian River and 220,000 acres north of it. Willow Creek rated high among the group's priorities.