This property was not only rich in natural diversity, containing four completely different landscapes, but also was an unusually large chunk of contiguous wildland. Its protection would maximize wildlife habitat by linking up several other properties already protected either as parkland or by conservation easement, including the Myers, Colliss, and Carrington ranches to the south and Sonoma Coast State Beach and the Red Hill property to the west. Mountain lions, black bears, deer, bobcats, and other creatures would be able to roam over an expanse of more than 13,500 acres.
Past a Roadblock
The first person to talk with Mendocino Redwood Company about donating or selling Willow Creek to the State was Caryl Hart, a State Parks commissioner who lives in the county, serves on a citizen advisory board of the Open Space District, and is also a founding board member of LandPaths.
"We were approached initially by Caryl Hart a couple of times, encouraging us that this would make a great addition to the state park system in Sonoma County," said Mendocino Redwood's chair Sandy Dean. In 2001, those conversations expanded to include the working group, and negotiations began in earnest.
Funding was pieced together from a variety of agencies and nonprofit groups, including the Open Space District, Trust for Public Land, Coastal Conservancy, California Wildlife Conservation Board, and State Parks. But then, in 2004, the talks hit a roadblock when it became clear that the State would not agree to buy the property for a park unless funding and a plan to open it to the public were in place. The State Parks budget was severely stressed, and there was no way the agency could meet the requirements in the time window available for the sale to go through.
Fortunately, Willow Creek was already open to the public, thanks to an unusual arrangement that Hart and a friend had developed with Mendocino Redwood soon after the company bought the property. Under this system, anyone interested in visiting Willow Creek could obtain a free permit; in return, permit holders would keep an eye on the property and report any abuses. In 2002, the company turned the permit system over to LandPaths, which Hart and others had formed in 1996 to manage another property in the county for State Parks (the McCormick Ranch addition to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park) when State Parks didn't have the money to take it on. Retecki suggested that this arrangement be continued. Acceptance of that idea removed the roadblock and in May 2005 the property was purchased for $20,785,000. More than 500 adjacent acres were protected by conservation easements.
LandPaths opened Willow Creek one month after the sale went through. Anyone can visit, either as part of a guided hike or by obtaining a permit. Permits are free, but applicants must attend an orientation to get to know the staff and to learn more about the property, including such things as how to work the combination lock on the gate to the staging area at Freezeout Flat. (After a year of use and more than 800 permits issued, the lock has been left open only twice.) Permit holders are asked to submit outing reports every time they visit, to help keep LandPaths staff informed of conditions on the property.
"We want to make every opportunity for people who live in the area to get excited about getting to know Willow Creek," said LandPaths' executive director Craig Anderson. "We want people to be in love with this place."