Helping the land flourish at Hayfork Ranch

May 15, 2023

Posted in: News Articles

“In the springtime it’s so roaring that it can sound like someone with a power-saw, but it’s the birds chirping in masses,” says Alma O’Brien, owner of Hayfork Ranch just northeast of Santa Rosa. 

Hayfork is a 216-acre ranch nestled next to our Saddle Mountain Open Space Preserve, and both properties are home to oak woodland and Douglas-fir forests, meadows, springs, ponds and rare plants. Wildlife roam both properties, with abundant sightings of foxes, rabbits, coyotes, geese, ducks and more. For all of these reasons, we worked with Mid O’Brien, Alma’s late father-in-law, to conserve Hayfork with one of our easements in 2007. 

Conserving this land was important to Mid, and this legacy continues on with his family. To ensure that, in Alma’s words, the “ecosystems flourish,” Alma and her husband, Mark, work on helping the land adapt. As Sonoma County has repeatedly experienced extreme drought over the last decade, the O’Brien’s installed a runoff system to capture water in storage tanks that gravity feeds water to their house, so they’re pulling 25,000 fewer gallons of groundwater per year. This stored water can also help with fire-fighting, which is especially important after the last few wildfires in the area.

When the Glass Fire burned across swaths of the property, new invasive plants arrived and others, like Himalayan blackberry, thrived. But, not at the expense of a rare and critically endangered wildflower – Clara Hunt’s milkvetch (see photo at right). Found only in Sonoma and Napa counties, these tiny purple and white wildflowers are flourishing at Hayfork and respond well after a wildfire. 

Now, the effects of wildfires are coupled with the heavy rains this past winter, and Alma says their next big project is removing topsoil that flowed into the ranch’s reservoir, which provides water and habitat for the birds and other wildlife that live on and around the property. 

Caring for conserved lands takes effort and resources, and the O’Brien family sees the conservation easement as a partnership in this work, making it more affordable to care for the land while also connecting them to our staff and other partners who can share best practices, and guide them to funding resources. Having Ag + Open Space as a partner in this work also helps the O’Briens feel it will be possible for future generations to continue to care for the land they way they have.

As Alma noted, “the conservation easement helps with the hardships, we have a partner in longevity.”

Conserving lands like Hayfork Ranch and supporting landowners as they care for the land helps ecosystems to flourish, ensures our communities have ample clean water and fresh air, and protects open space for future generations to learn and adapt as the natural world evolves. 

If you want to learn more about wildflowers on Saddle Mountain and Hayfork Ranch, read on in our blog post about springtime after wildfires >>

Photo credit: Alma O’Brien