A Celebration of the Coast Dairies Protection

On a chilly April morning, the sun fights, sometimes with shining moments of success, to break through the thick coastal fog that wraps the Santa Cruz coast. On the edge of a dramatic bluff, a squadron of brown pelicans soars on the wind as the cold green Pacific tumbles onto the rocks below. Along the shore lay miles of pale, sandy cliffs, while inland, a blanket of verdant farmland obscures views of Highway 1, giving way to rolling foothills and finally the towering redwood forests that this part of the California coast is known for.

A crowd of about 75 supporters, friends, and staff of The Trust for Public Land are gathered on Sand Hill Bluff to celebrate the permanent protection of five miles of coastline. Though they stand huddled in fleece jackets, wooly scarves, and knit caps, the crowd is jubilant over the addition of this vital piece to a swath of public lands on California’s central coast, the culmination of nearly a decade of hard work by many. 

“Some of the most stunning coastline in California has been saved forever from development,” announced TPL executive director Reed Holderman, to an enthusiastic round of applause. “Yes! If we clap, maybe it will keep us warm!”

On a map, Sand Hill Bluff’s 154 acres don’t appear that significant, especially when compared with the adjacent 7,000-acre Coast Dairies property, which TPL purchased in 1998 . But together with Coast Dairies, as well as its other neighbors, Gray Whale Ranch and Wilder Ranch State Park, Sand Hill Bluff completes a chain of 13 miles of protected coastline stretching from the city of Santa Cruz to Ano Nuevo State Reserve. The lands comprise beaches, wetlands, farmland, oak woodlands, redwood forests, endangered-wildlife habitat, and an archaeological site that offers a window into life here more than 5,000 years ago.

Preserving California’s History

“These kinds of sites are our only window to the past, and they are nonrenewable resources-once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” says Mark Hylkema, an archaeologist for California State Parks Department, of the ancient midden at Sand Hill Bluff. Evidence from the site, the largest of its kind between Santa Barbara and Point Reyes, shows that ancestral Ohlone came to the area to fish, dive for abalone, and hunt tule elk. A giant mound of shell bits, animal bones, and stone chips from tool production reveal that this place was visited seasonally by generations before the Ohlone transitioned to a more settled lifestyle in the Santa Clara Valley.

“The objective for this site is preservation, not excavation,” Hylkema says, adding that the shellmound has been well-known among artifact collectors for years and that dozens of arrow points found here are now held in private collections. “The cast-aside shells here reveal not only archaeological information but also environmental data about past climates that can help us understand what is happening to the climate now.” Part of State Parks’ evolving plan for the site is to construct a boardwalk that will enable the public to visit the site without disturbing the shellmound. A combination of state and federal funds were used to acquire this unique property.

“Not only is the land at Coast Dairies and Sand Hill Bluff among the most beautiful along our state’s spectacular central coast, but it also holds treasured cultural resources, rich farmland, and diverse wildlife,” says Sam Schuchat, executive director of the California Coastal Conservancy. “The protection of this area is a tremendous triumph for conservation.”

Protecting a Farming Legacy

More recently, farmers have taken advantage of the rich soil and cool climate here, grazing dairy cattle and growing fields of Brussels sprouts, artichokes, fava beans, and strawberries for more than a century.

“Coastal farmland in California is extremely precious-and extremely threatened,” says Holderman. In 1996, a Las Vegas developer planned to build 139 ocean-view homes on the Coast Dairies property before TPL and Save the Redwoods League stepped in a decade ago. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which has helped in protecting land up and down the central coast, supplied more than half of the $45 million needed to purchase the sizable parcel. California Coastal Conservancy added $6 million in public funds toward the acquisition, thanks to the efforts of State Senator Bruce McPherson and former Assemblymember Fred Keeley. TPL transferred a 407 acre portion of the property to the California State Parks Department in 2006.

“The entire Packard family loves the coast and open space, but getting involved in this deal fundamentally changed the way we look at land,” says Cole Wilbur, a trustee and former president of the Packard Foundation. “We were delighted to work with TPL and lend our support to saving such a wonderful, diverse place.”

A planned landmark arrangementwill allow Agri-Culture, Inc., a Watsonville-based nonprofit, to own and manage 737 acres of the Coast Dairies property and nearly half the land at Sand Hill Bluff for sustainable farming.

“As important as preserving agricultural lands is preserving farming itself,” says Agri-Culture, Inc. president Bill Ringe, whose great-grandparents started farming in California in 1862. “We applaud TPL for seeing that those go hand in hand.”

Indeed, agriculture is a key part of life along this span of the central coast. “Santa Cruz County is one of the smallest counties in the state, but it is also one of the most agriculturally productive,” says Brian Leahy, assistant director of the California Department of Conservation.

“I grew up with the farmers here,” adds Alverda Orlando, a local historian and 30-year resident of the nearby town of Davenport. “That agriculture will continue here is something very dear to my heart.”

A Home for Endangered Wildlife

Farmers wouldn’t have been the only ones hurt had Coast Dairies been lost to development. The six beaches and seven wetlands are home to several endangered and threatened species-including the California red-legged frog, tidewater gobi, western snowy plover, and steelhead and coho salmon-as well as rare plant communities such as coastal prairie and sage scrub. At Sand Hill Bluff, State Parks is planning an extensive restoration of the wetland where Laguna Creek spills into the Pacific.

“We’re planning to restore the native plant population and remove exotic species that are threatening the wildlife, but we’re also going to add public access as well as maintain the current access to the beach at the wetland,” explains Chris Spohrer, a State Parks resource ecologist.

State Parks is also teaming up with the California Coastal Conservancy to link the newly protected land to the California Coastal Trail, completing the trail between the city of Santa Cruz and the Ano Nuevo State Preserve.

“The 1,300-mile California Coastal Trail will give us an opportunity to explore California’s natural history while enjoying the best ocean view in the world,” says Assemblymember John Laird. “It represents a recreational legacy for our children and grandchildren.”

A Jewel in California’s Coastal Crown

“When Californians think back to those special moments when they were growing up, chances are the setting for those memories was open space,” says State Parks Director Ruth Coleman. “The citizens of this state own parks with waterfalls, giant redwoods, majestic mountains, even castles. And now they own some of the most spectacular coastline in the county.”

As the state’s population continues to grow, the beaches that California is famous for are increasingly threatened by development. Looking at Coast Dairies and Sand Hill Bluff, it’s hard to believe that such an emblematic landscape could have been off-limits to all but a small group of luxury-home owners.

“California’s coastline is a treasure that we all must work to protect,” says Senator Dianne Feinstein. “I applaud the efforts of everyone who banded together to protect Coast Dairies and Sand Hill Bluff.”

“With the protection of Coast Dairies and Sand Hill Bluff, the public has gained a beautiful treasure to pass on to future generations,” adds Representative Anna Eshoo.”

“The geology, flora, fauna and agriculture here is unparalleled,” says local resident Alverda Orlando. “I hope the site will be kept as natural as possible so people can enjoy it for hiking, picnicking, whale-watching-for just being. It is a beautiful place.”