A stretch of road alongside Highway 101 could soon be home to a tunnel complex turned wildlife crossing under the busy highway.
The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County announced Sept. 9 in a press release that it has agreed to purchase the 2,600-acre Rocks Ranch in Aromas at the border of San Benito and Monterey counties.
The land, once planned for a large development, will be protected as valuable wildlife habitat.
The Land Trust will work with Caltrans to build a wildlife tunnel that will run under Highway 101, providing a vital link between the Santa Cruz and Gabilan mountains for migrating mountain lions.
“This is a spectacular place,” said Land Trust Executive Director Stephen Slade in a press release. “It’s like nothing in Santa Cruz County. It’s all grassland and oaks and rock outcroppings.”
They acquired the purchase rights from the Bingaman family, which owned the uninhabited ranch since 1947. The family will retain ownership of a 70-acre section of the property where development could take place.
The arrangement allows the Bingamans to develop a portion of the property adjacent to Highway 101 and the Red Barn while protecting the rest of the ranch, which is used for cattle grazing.
The ranch had been in the spotlight following the San Benito County supervisors’ decision of their intent to rezone a portion of the property for development.
Slade said the previous owners planned to build up to 900 houses and a hotel on the property. He added that would’ve eliminated the possibility of building a wildlife crossing under Highway 101.
“It’s a developer’s dream,” Slade said. “It has water, it’s between the Silicon Valley and the coast.”
The 2,640-acre property features nine ponds, two miles of streams, several seeps/springs and 10 acres of wetlands. It will be held by a third party for up to three years as Land Trust raises $10.8 million to complete the purchase.
Project Director Dan Medeiros called it, “A dream landscape for wildlife. It has water, grass, open land, breeding habitat, everything.”
Medeiros was part of UCSC’s Puma Project to help collar a mountain lion that they tracked from Laurel Curve on Highway 17 to Rocks Ranch. The lion was killed trying to cross Highway 101.
The Land Trust protected 470 acres around Laurel Curve and has committed $3 million toward construction of the Highway 17 wildlife crossing, which Caltrans has scheduled to begin working in 2021.
“We’ve done this before,” Slade said. “You protect land where animals are, where it is possible to build a safe passage, then Caltrans knows a wildlife crossing will work. They’ve been tremendous partners on the Highway 17 project.”
The Land Trust will launch a fundraising campaign in the fall to protect the ranch. More information, photos, and a drone video of the property is available at www.LandTrustSantaCruz.org.