The Land Trust of Napa County not only owns Walt Ranch, it will own the 2,300-acre property free and clear of debt.


A $7 million grant awarded Thursday by the state Wildlife Conservation Board will make the difference. The Land Trust earlier this year bought the ranch in the hills between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa for $24.5 million, with $7 million being in loans.


“It would be huge for the Land Trust to be able to pay off all the debt and would really have an impact on our ability to do other conservation in Napa County,” the Land Trust’s chief executive Doug Parker said prior to the meeting.


The Wildlife Conservation Board saw the value in turning Walt Ranch into a nature preserve that someday will be open to the public. This land includes oak woodlands and grasslands.


“The property is a critical addition to the wildlife corridor that extends from the San Francisco Bay area to the Oregon border,” an agency report said.

A mosaic of natural features results in a high biodiversity ranking. Plants and wildlife include the Jepson’s leptosiphon, Napa bluecurls, dwarf calicoflower, western red bat and foothill yellow-legged frog, it said.


Plus, the land’s elevation and water resources will provide a haven for wildlife and plants escaping sea level rise, according to the wildlife board.


Walt Ranch for years was the focus of an intense Napa County land use battle. Craig and Kathryn Hall of HALL Wines won county approval to plant 209 acres of vineyards there. Opponents upset over the pending removal of an estimated 14,000 trees in the watershed challenged the approval in court.


Napa County eventually won the court battle. But that wasn’t the final word.


Earlier this year, the Halls gave the Land Trust a chance to buy the land. They donated $6.5 million of the $24.5 million purchase price. The Wildlife Conservation Board is providing $7 million, the state Coastal Conservancy $7 million, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation $4 million.


The Land Trust still wants to build a $4 million fund to pay for Walt Ranch maintenance and expenses. Parker mentioned such costs as trails, erosion control on old ranch roads and fuel reduction work.


Also, the Land Trust must do a management plan for Walt Ranch. Parker said the plan will, among other things, determine the best places for the public to access the property.
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