Protect Oak Woodlands

The Walt Ranch Environmental Challenge

By Nancy Tamarisk

Vice-Chair, Napa Group

We’ve been expecting this fight for years, and it is big. It is a fight over habitat, groundwater, and climate change.  Its name is Walt Ranch, and its outcome may influence county, regional, and even statewide policy.   

The Walt proposal, by a 500+ member Texas-based investment group associated with vintner Craig Hall, is to clear cut over 300 acres of oak woodland for vineyard development on Atlas Peak. 

More than 28,000 “significant” trees will be cut down, eliminating wildland habitat, wiping out carbon stores which counter greenhouse gases, and destabilizing the soil.   Project-generated erosion and landslides could threaten house foundations, roads, and water delivery infrastructure.

The project proposes to annually pump over 69 million gallons of water from two sensitive watersheds:   Milliken Creek, which supplies the City of Napa and the water-deficient MST basin, and Capell Creek, which supplies 180 homes in Circle Oaks.  Another 300 or so residences on Atlas Peak also rely on wells.

We believe that the Walt Ranch Environmental Impact Report is deeply flawed.  It does not adequately address environmental damage, nor the neighbors’ interests. To effectively challenge it we must hire an attorney and environmental experts.  Our estimated initial expenses are in the range of $15,000 - 20,000, about 7 times our annual income.  

Can you help us?  To make a tax-deductible donation, write a check to Sierra Club Foundation, stating “Napa Group” in the memo line. Mail to: Napa Sierra Club, PO Box P.O.Box 5531Napa CA 94581.  

Ohlson Ranch: Converting oak woodland and grasslands to vineyard

By Suzanne Doyle

Conservation Chair, Sonoma Group

The coastal hills of Sonoma County are at risk from wine industry expansion. Now that  most of our valley croplands are covered with vineyards and climate change threatens to make inland areas too hot, the cooler ridgetops and forests of the west county are in the firing line.

The county’s VESCO ordinance is primarily concerned with erosion. It protects steep slopes from development, but not the meadows and oak woodland that are often found on ridgetops. A current example, the Ohlson Ranch project, proposes planting a vineyard on a previously grazed ridgetop in the Haupt Creek (Gualala River) watershed. The land is open meadow with scattered oaks; vineyard development here is likely to cause habitat fragmentation and dewatering and degradation of the coho salmon streams below.

VESCO exempts this project and future projects like it from thorough environmental review, from public comment, and from any evaluation of the cumulative impacts of many similar projects. More importantly, vineyard development here would create a precedent for similar projects in the northwest county.

The Chapter’s Sonoma Group has joined a lawsuit by Friends of the Gualala River to demand that this vineyard be reviewed for environmental impacts. The county should also add to VESCO the ability to evaluate and act on the cumulative impact of many small projects of this kind. The aerial photo below shows the pond being built on the Ohlson Ranch property and gives some idea of the number of ridgetops around it that could be developed.

Can you help us?  To make a tax-deductible donation, write a check to Sierra Club Foundation, stating “Sonoma Group” in the memo line.  Mail to: Sonoma Group, PO Box 466, Santa Rosa 95402.

For more information, see FoGR Files Lawsuit over Sonoma County’s VESCO.

Aerial photo of a new irrigation pond on the Ohlson Ranch property. Credit: Chris Poehlmann, Friends of the Gualala River, flight donated by Lighthawk