The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County is in the beginning stages of assessing usage potential for the Santa Rita Ranch along Highway 46.
The Ranch sits in Northern San Luis Obispo County between Paso Robles and Cambria. It’s more than 1,700 acres and is home to a number of wildlife species like deer, turkeys, mountain lions and even black bears.
The Ranch also holds a lake reservoir surrounded by oak, bay laurel, sycamore and maple trees.
The conservancy acquired the property in December of 2020 for $8 million dollars after decades of private ownership. Almost half of that money came from the State Wildlife Conservation Board to help get the land and permanently protect water rights associated with the lake on the property.
The rest of the money came from internal reserves and now the Conservancy is fundraising to help make up for the purchase of the ranch.
Daniel Bohlman is the Deputy Director of the Land Conservancy. He said acquiring this land is a step in preserving habitat for these species by maintaining open space free of housing and infrastructure development.
Bohlman said active cattle ranching will continue on the land but it also has a lot of potential for public use. He said the Conservancy’s plan is to open it, likely in the next three to five years.
“We want to get it right. We want to really make sure that we do right by the property and we understand and are good stewards of the property, first and foremost,” Bohlman said. “But also that when we do open the gates, however that looks, that the visitors that come there feel like this was done correctly.”
Bohlman said access to the land may be more limited than places like the Pismo Preserve. But he said the Conservancy has plans for a trail system, with the only question being exactly where they will end up on the property.
Bohlman said members of the public have contacted the Land Conservancy about possible usage of the lake and he said he’s optimistic about the opportunity.
“Right now, I don’t know what the chances are. I would say they’re probably pretty good that at some point people could come out on a weekend with their family and enjoy some fishing right along the shores,” Bohlman said.
Bohlman said he expects the Land Conservancy will gather significant input from mountain biking, trail running and equestrian groups to figure out if there is a way for the ranch to serve those communities.
Kyle Walsh is the Conservation Director for the Land Conservancy and helped facilitate the protection and ownership of the ranch. He said part of the reason public use may take some time is because there is so much to learn about the property
“Whether that’s the really good things where we see a lot of native plants, native habitat for wildlife, installing wildlife cameras and things like that on the property, just to document what’s there. And also finding out where it needs work,” Walsh said.
He said this work will help the Conservancy to develop more concrete management and use plans over the remainder of the year.
Bohlman said one of the biggest goals for the property is to use it as a more permanent space to house the non-profit’s Learning Among the Oaks education program.
The program has been running for 16 years and focuses on training 4th, 5th and 6th graders to teach their peers about the importance of oak woodlands.
Bohlman said the Conservancy is talking about renovating an old ranch house on the property to be an education center and oak natural history museum. But that'll take time and funding, so the plans aren’t concrete.
Alex Zewiski helps run the Oak Education Program through the Conservancy. She said the Santa Rita Ranch could offer a really unique setting to further the impact of Learning Among the Oaks.
“Oak woodlands are the prominent and most dominant ecosystem in California but there is no actual place in California that you can go and just learn all about [them],” Zewiski said. “So hopefully one day we’ll have a great nature center there and be able to host field trips and place-based education.”
Zewiski said the Land Conservancy hopes the space could also be used to help kids learn about things like native peoples, ranch management and the local watershed.
To find out about volunteering or donating to the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County, click here.
This report is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.