Chris Wilmes hopes the recent land acquisition is only the beginning of a larger conservation movement.

Chris Wilmes hopes the recent land acquisition is only the beginning of a larger conservation movement.

Santa Cruz’s “Great Park” is finally coming together, but not the way most people expected. Instead, the purchase of 8,532 acres of undeveloped land near Davenport from Cemex, owners of the nearby closed-down cement plant, represents a whole new era of land conservation—one no longer in the hands of the state.

“That model that’s operated for several generations in California is broken, and who knows if it will ever return? I think the expectation within the conservation community is we need to come up with a new model. The new model is what’s being implemented at Cemex,” says Land Trust of Santa Cruz deputy director, Stephen Slade.

For years, local conservation group Sempervirens Fund had talked about creating a “Great Park” in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one that would connect Wilder Ranch, Pogonip, Henry Cowell and Big Basin. It would stretch all the way up the Pescadero, protecting a vast mountain range from development and allowing the public to enjoy as much of the wild lands as possible.

The $30 million Cemex deal was a huge step toward their goal, and saw Sempervirens teaming with not only the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, but also the Nature Conservancy, Peninsula Open Space Trust and Save the Redwoods League to form the Living Landscape Initiative, and purchased 8,532 acres of undeveloped land near Davenport from Cemex.

“This was an opportunity that came along because the economy was in a slump and the cement company needed to sell the land,” says Slade. “It’s the largest undeveloped property in Santa Cruz County and key connector between four already protected parks. By protecting it you create this 27,000-acre block of undeveloped wild lands. It was a historic opportunity.”

But the opportunity came out of necessity, as the state no longer has the money to purchase and protect new land.

“Nobody ordered us to stop buying land or anything like that. The operating dollars aren’t there. So if the operating dollars aren’t there, the question is, should we be buying new property? We don’t have the money,” said Roy Sterns, deputy director for communications at the California State Parks.

The State’s parks budget had been steadily decreasing for about a decade, but the recession sealed the deal in 2008. In fact, the park even had to temporarily close down several existing parks.

Public Access

Many locals are asking what the Living Landscape Initiative’s plans are for the Cemex property, specifically if they will open it to the public. Representatives from the LLI pledged to do so at a town hall meeting in Davenport this summer.

“Public access is fundamental to the project. It always has been. It’s a piece we have yet to do, but we’re moving pretty quickly to that piece,” says Reed Holderman, executive director of Sempervirens.

What hasn’t been determined is what percentage of the 8,532 acres will be open to the public. Some of the property will be dedicated to creating reserves for sensitive species and some to sustainable timber harvesting. Already, several rare and sensitive species have been identified on the property, including the California red-legged frog, Peregrine falcons, steelhead trout, Coho salmon and potentially the marbled murrelet.

Also, according to Chris Wilmes, a professor of Environmental Studies at UCSC, the Cemex property is a very important component of the local mountain lion habitat.

It is part of a major breeding area,” Wilmers says. “We’re not exactly sure why, but mountain lions need seclusion to reproduce.”

While conservationists consider it a major victory, the Cemex acquisition is part of a greater plan to acquire and protect 80,000 acres in and around the Silicon Valley over the next 20 years.  

“It feels ambitious and doable at the same time, in a pretty short timeframe,” Slade says.