Land Trust donates historic 200-acre homestead to regional park

Sonoma Land Trust to purchase, then turn over 200-acre homestead.|

Slowly, ranch by ranch and easement by easement, Hood Mountain Regional Park is adding the private property that lies within its borders. The 2,000-acre park and open space preserve boxes in a spread of private land that has long included the 200-acre Fitzsimmons Ranch, a historic homestead dating from 1912.

On April 20, the Sonoma Land Trust closes escrow on the $1.13 million Fitzsimmons Ranch and, in turn, will donate it to the Sonoma County Regional Parks system.

“The expansion of the park has been a key priority for Sonoma Land Trust,” the organization said in a statement, “ensuring that future generations of visitors and wildlife can thrive and adapt in this important corridor of the Mayacamas Mountains.”

Fitzsimmons Ranch has a rich history. Homesteaded in 1912 by Max Arthur Fitzsimmons and his wife Maud William Fitzsimmons, the couple received a land grant that was signed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. While they returned to Santa Rosa to live shortly thereafter, Max, Maud and subsequent generations of their family maintained the ranch for cattle grazing and family visits.

Their granddaughter, Marda Mitchell Gallagher of Santa Rosa, along with her sister and brother, is selling the property to the Sonoma Land Trust. The recent Nuns and Glass fires were hard on the property and led to its sale earlier than anticipated, according to the family. The Nuns fire of 2017 burned through most of the fencing, requiring the family to sell off the cattle; then the Glass fire in 2020 burned every remaining fencepost — along with the barn.

“It is hard to give up the ranch, but we are all very happy to be selling it to Sonoma Land Trust. It’s the perfect answer for us,” says Marda Mitchell Gallagher. “My siblings and I all want it to remain open space — that was never in question.”

It is this relatively faint footprint on the land that has made it so compelling to Sonoma Land Trust and Regional Parks, used for grazing but little else for the past 100-plus years. “This is the epitome of wild land, which is rare to come by in our county anymore,” said the land trust’s acquisitions director John McCaull.

Fitzsimmons Ranch lies in the Sonoma Creek watershed of the Mayacamas Mountains, with mountain meadows, chaparral and rare serpentine areas. Protecting this L-shaped ranch is critical to protecting and expanding the linkages for wildlife habitat across the Mayacamas.

At the completion of this project, the Sonoma Land Trust will have contributed three properties in recent years to expand by over 400 acres Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve: the 162-acre Santa Rosa Creek Headwaters in 2017; the 40-acre Santa Rosa Creek Redwoods in 2018; and the 200-acre Fitzsimmons Ranch in 2021.

Yet approximately 500 acres of private land remain surrounded by Regional Parks and State Parks property, near the boundary with Sugarloaf Ridge. “We don’t control and we very much respect our neighbors,” said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, of private-property owners in the park. While a land trust or easement solution for eventually incorporating the remaining acreage is possible, said Whitaker, “time will tell.”

Philanthropic donations have usually made these acquisitions possible. In the case of the Fitzsimmons Ranch, private donors Mary Love, Jake Warner and Toni Ihara, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation were key.

“I wanted this gift to the Land Trust from my late husband David and myself to help save our natural wild lands from urban sprawl, which can have such a negative impact on our wild animals and their natural habitat,” said Love. “Without wildlife and their rightful environment, none of us can thrive or survive because we are all a part of the whole.”

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