Just north of Santa Rosa, land that has seen three generations of the McCullough family is on its way to becoming the newest of Sonoma County’s regional parks. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors recently purchased 461 acres for nearly $8.5 million from John and Martha McCullough, who began acquiring land in the area over 40 years ago. The county hopes to link this parcel with two other pieces of land to make a park that will eventually total more than 1,000 acres.
The property represents one of three parcels that would comprise the future park. The 340-acre Cresta property, purchased in 2007, is contiguous with McCullough Ranch. The district also holds a right-of-first-refusal offer on an additional 275 acres that will require partner funding to purchase.
The McCullough property is unique in that it already has very well established and maintained trail systems — more than 22 miles over which the McCullough family rode their horses. The area is also distinguished by its diverse habitats, including grasslands, chaparral, oak woodlands, Douglas fir and redwood forests, almost two miles of Mark West Creek, and ridges with spectacular views. The land supports lots of wildlife, says John McCullough: “All the usual suspects, from cougars to possums.” The 1.7 miles of creek contain both Coho salmon and steelhead trout. Birds found on the property include blue herons, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, five or six kinds of woodpeckers, and marsh, Cooper’s, and red-tailed hawks.
When the McCulloughs first bought the property, a fire had recently burned through the area. The family worked “a little bit at a time,” McCullough says, “to build back up the land.” They were helped by their children, who were familiar with the property, having used it to train horses. “They said, ‘This place was once really nice, I wonder if it could be again.'” The McCulloghs bought 100 pounds of wildflower seeds and had them dispersed from the air. They planted thousands of native trees, including long-needled pines, redwoods, and Douglas-firs, continuing tree planting off and on for years. McCullough says he also bought acreage “every time land around became available.” As he added land, he added trails.
“People would ask me ‘what do you raise?’,” he says, “and I would say we just have a park. I began to realize what an unusual piece of land we had, and I thought that it would be a shame to split it up,” says McCullough, who is chair of the trails committee of the Western States Trails Foundation. Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District became involved, and in 2002 a conservation easement was set up along the creek. The purchase agreement includes an $850,000 charitable donation by the McCulloughs to the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation for the planning, restoration, development, and maintenance of the property for use as a park.
While the property undergoes its transition, docent-led tours will continue on the land under terms of the existing conservation agreement, while more possibilities for public access are examined. With so much diversity in such a huge tract of land, there’s sure to be something for everyone. As for John McCullough’s favorite part of the land? “They’re all favorites. I spent part of my life on each part, building trails, so each one meant something…The creek areas are really nice, but when you get on the ridge on a nice day, that’s the best.”