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Giant East Bay Ranch May Become California’s Next State Park

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Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled California’s $220 budget for 2020-21, and among the many line items is $65 million to expand the state’s state park system. CalMatters noted that that figure includes $20 million toward the purchase of an unspecified parcel of land, whose specific identity the governor declined to mention for fear of driving up the price in a bidding war.

N3 Ranch, CA

However, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and others noted that it’s almost certainly the giant N3 Ranch outside of Livermore, which went on the market last July for $72 million after the family that’s been working the land for several generations decided to hang it up, like a gigantic Lucca Ravioli Co. in the farthest reaches of the East Bay. Bay Area legislators have been urging the governor to snap it up before someone else does.

The largest single property of its kind in the state, and only 15 minutes from Livermore, it’s nonetheless an irregular, Rorschach-shaped parcel that covers parts of four counties (Alameda, Santa Clara, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus). At the risk of being ghoulish, what it most resembles is a wildfire burn zone. At 80 square miles or 50,000 acres, it’s considerably larger than the footprint of the 2017 Tubbs Fire — much larger than San Francisco, too, and slightly bigger than Oakland. It consists mostly of rolling hills of oak and shrubs, with plenty of creeks, and its highest point is taller than Mount Diablo.

To the extent that anywhere in California looks as it did a century ago — barring any eucalyptuses and the introduction of non-native grasses — the Edenic N3 Ranch would be it. You’ve got to watch this four-minute video explaining its amenities, now that it’s up for grabs for the first time since the 1930s. The narrator sounds like Sam Elliott smoked an extra pack of Marlboro Lights before doing the voiceover for a very large SUV commercial, but if you don’t like looking at lots and lots of antlers and animal skulls, maybe just listen. 

Via enrollment under the 1965 Williamson Act, N3 Ranch has already been working with the state Department of Conservation for years, and there are no easements on it. What makes for another good selling point, from the state’s perspective, is that it’s not virgin wilderness, so the shift from working ranch to state park won’t necessarily despoil or degrade the property. A headquarters already exists. Cattle roam freely and 200 miles of well-maintained roads already criss-cross the land, plus many more trails that connect the various pastures and the dozen or so rustic cabins. When you see the Jeep ford the stream, you’ll get some Jurassic Park vibes.

So: It’s too low in elevation and too close to the coast to be a home for winter sports, but a future N3 Ranch State Park looks ideal for hiking and biking, wildlife viewing, and birding, perhaps with portions allocated to rewilding that would be off-limits to most humans. The YouTube video also leans hard on hunting elk, turkey, and quail, and fishing for trout in stocked ponds, both of which are bound to be flashpoints.

Undoubtedly, such a gigantic land transfer will involve numerous complications — the voiceover mentions a third-party ranching entity that leases some land — and its size alone will invite lawsuits large and small, both frivolous and in good faith. Watershed analysis alone could be a formidable task. And who knows what threatened, presumed-extinct, or perhaps even as-yet-undiscovered species make their home among this diverse range of ecosystems? It will take time to sort all that out, then plan prudently so we don’t have another traffic-clogged Yosemite Valley on our hands.

This is just another indication that, for all the attention paid to our housing emergency, California has executed a remarkable turnaround in its fiscal health. As recently as 2009, then  Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed padlocking 80 percent of the state’s 200-plus parks to help close a yawning $24 billion budget deficit. Now the state’s back in the black, and re-embracing its role as steward of the land. And if the federal Bureau of Land Management ever boots Burning Man and its exploding toilets out of the Black Rock Desert — well, hopefully not. 

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Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is a total gaylord who was the editor of SF Weekly for kind of a while. His goal is to get to every national park before he turns 40, but they're starting to get really remote now.