Win, Win, Win! The Battle for Walt Ranch Seems to Be Over, by Nancy Tamarisk

Napa’s lovers of wildlands were ecstatic this January to learn that the 2300-acre Walt Ranch on Atlas Peak is on track to be purchased by Land Trust of Napa County. The deal is not quite sealed, a lot more money needs to be raised (Napa Sierra Club and the Redwood Chapter are contributing $4000). To make your own contribution go to The Land Trust will conserve the land in perpetuity, operating it in partnership with Napa Parks and Open Space District, raising hopes for public trails in this glorious spot high above the valley floor.

Walt Ranch is the epicenter of the biggest local environmental fight of recent memory: the plan by a Hall family company (vintners Craig and Kathryn Hall) to destroy 400 acres of Atlas Peak wild habitat in order to develop vineyards. For nearly a decade, starting in 2014, Sierra Club led the vigorous opposition to this project, which outraged a large segment of the Napa community, invigorating such organizations as Napa Vision 2050 and Defenders of East Napa Watersheds (DENW). The fight created a network of trusted allies which still exists.

The proposed plan would have clearcut over 28,000 trees in an environmental hotspot which harbors many threatened species, serves as an important wildlife corridor, and hosts the headwaters of Millikan Creek, which supplies water to the City of Napa.  The anticipated annual pumping of 69 million gallons of water for vineyard irrigation could have threatened the water supply of the community of Circle Oaks. Since Walt Ranch actually comprises 32 separate parcels, there was the possibility to develop small “gentlemen’s vineyards” spread over the parcels to be sold off individually, for wealthy parties to build ridge-side McMansions, fulfilling their fantasies of wine-country chic.  The Halls had already implemented a similar plan in Sonoma County.

Community members organized en masse, filing comments, raising money, hiring experts, demonstrating, and spreading the word. Sierra Club partnered with the nationally renowned Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to challenge the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR), with the hiring of experts, raising money, and submitting comments to local officials. When the disputed EIR was accepted, Sierra Club reluctantly filed a lawsuit in partnership with CBD. We were not alone: local environmental non-profit ICARE, and the Circle Oaks Water District and Circle Oaks Homes Association also filed separate lawsuits.