For decades, coyotes, hawks and dusky-footed woodrats have roamed the secluded INE Ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Few other creatures, domestic or human, have been on this 148-acre Palo Alto parcel off Skyline Boulevard in the last 15 years.
Gone are the pigs, sheep, chickens and dairy cows that once traversed the property's forests and grasslands.
But the land could have new trails in the future. On Feb. 28, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District purchased the property for $3.6 million. The ranch is the largest addition to the Monte Bello Open Space Preserve in more than 20 years, and it was one of the largest private land holdings left on that scenic corridor, said Michael Williams, the district's real property manager.
When it is open, visitors will be treated to spectacular ridge views and opportunities to glimpse rare and protected species such as the California red-legged frog, the Western pond turtle, Cooper's hawk, Sharp-shinned hawk and the San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat.
New trails at INE Ranch would link Monte Bello to the north and Santa Clara County's Upper Stevens Creek Park to the south.
"A new trail could connect to (Monte Bello's) Canyon Trail and Grizzly Flat Trail," Williams said, pointing at a map showing the circuitous Grizzly Flat and the relatively straight Canyon.
The property could also help the district complete the Upper Stevens Creek Trail system, which is one of 25 top priorities identified in the district's recently completed 30-year vision plan, spokeswoman Amanda Kim said.
The acquisition also means the district can protect nearly all of the Stevens Creek watershed, Williams added.
The district has wanted INE Ranch ever since 1974, when it purchased the first 760 acres of the now-3,133-acre Monte Bello. The same family had owned the ranch since 1957, when the grandparents of the recent owner purchased it, Williams said. ("INE" represents the initials of some of the family members.)
Two people affiliated with the Midpen district lived on the property for years until 2009, according to Steven Abbors, the district's general manager. After they left, a supervising ranger who lived on a nearby Christmas tree farm kept in touch with the landowner, the original owners' granddaughter. When she decided to sell, she contacted the ranger, Williams said. The landowner has requested anonymity, he added.
Rising to 2,200 feet at its main ridge line, the property lies along the San Andreas Fault. The fault is the tectonic boundary between two land masses, the Pacific Plate, where the ranch sits, and the North American Plate.
The ranch, which has three creeks, two seasonal ponds and dozens of wildlife species, offers the varied habitat that comes with being on both sides of the fault line, Williams said.
On a recent afternoon, Supervising District Ranger Dennis Danielson pointed to the distant ranges.
"There's Mt. Umunhum. And you can see the Gabilan Mountains, all the way to Monterey County. The San Andreas Fault is right down there," he said, pointing to the green ribbon of Stevens Creek. The tree-lined creek, named for wagon-train pioneer Elijah Stephens, meanders below a tawny meadow.
From somewhere in the trees, a scrub jay mimicked a hawk's cry. Native grasses nodded in the early afternoon sunlight.
Williams pointed to an above-ground pig-rendering pit, where butchered hogs were once cooked as a routine part of farm life.
"We'll assess the barns to see if bats or owls are roosting there and if the buildings are historically significant," he said. The barns would be preserved if the roosting animals are found there, or if the buildings are historically important. If not, most likely, they will be left to decay, he said.
Williams led the way toward a pond, where ribbitting tree frogs hopped into the water as visitors approached. One week prior, the pond was still dry. Deep earthen cracks, reminders of this year's historic drought, were still visible beneath several inches of water after the late-February rain.
But now the pond was alive with ripples. Skimmers traversed its surface, and small amphibians searched for aquatic insects in the murky water.
Cindy Roessler, a natural resources biologist, squatted near the pond. Excited by the water movement, Roessler said they had identified two species of newts: the Coast Range and rough-skinned newts. It is mating season for the amphibians; masses of pea-sized eggs the consistency of Jell-O stuck to a thicket of submerged grasses and twigs along the water's edge.
A third newt species, the red-bellied newt, is also found here. Historically, it was not known south of Sonoma County, making it a rare find for this area.
Roessler wrangled a male Coast Range newt and flipped him on his back to expose his yellow underbelly.
"On the base of each toe there's a tiny black dot. Only the males have them," she said.
The dots are tacky, like a rubber glove, and the male will use them to hang onto his slippery mate during courtship, she said.
After a mating dance, the male mounts the female and rubs his chin on her nose, she said.
More eggs lined the pond, hanging off strands of water-logged grasses and algae like translucent pearls. These are frog eggs, most likely of the small green tree frog, although endangered red-legged frogs are known to occur here.
A young garter snake, brilliant green, with a tree frog protruding from its mouth, abruptly slithered out from beneath the matted grasses beneath the biologists' feet.
"Can you believe how much life there is in a pond?" Roessler said.
The diversity of this place fascinates Williams the most. Standing in the grassland above the pond, he surveyed the rich diversity that has evolved along the two plates of the San Andreas Fault. He pointed to a line of oak trees.
"There are black and Valley oaks (both deciduous) and Shreve's and Canyon oaks (both evergreen). They form a neat edge of two zones," he pointed out.
Williams scanned the rolling humps of Monte Bello before him, the historic terraced vineyards, oak forests and mountains southeast to Mt. Umumhum. The 180-degree view ends with a conifer forest that includes a stand of Coast redwoods near a creek.
Obtaining this land is in some ways as satisfying as the views. Years of relationship-building went into the INE Ranch purchase, Williams said.
District goals have sometimes been met with public concern and mistrust over the years, with some property owners fearing the district would take away their property rights. In 2004, some coastal farmers became alarmed when the district proposed expansion of its jurisdiction to include the San Mateo County coast from southern Pacifica to the Santa Cruz county line, nearly tripling its total acreage. But the district only wants to purchase from willing sellers, Abbors said.
Under the state's Williamson Act, the City of Palo Alto and the INE Ranch landowner had agreed in 1973 that the land would be used for agricultural purposes in exchange for lower property taxes.
The district board voted on Feb. 12 not to renew the Williamson Act agreement, since the district is protecting the land as open space and since, as a government agency, Midpen does not pay taxes. Abbors said that is typical of the district's land acquisitions and reduces administrative burdens, but the land could still have an agricultural use. The district has been allowing more grazing on some of its properties.
Because biological assessments and trail studies must be done, the ranch will not be accessible soon -- at least not to hiking humans.
Back at the pond, the frogs were singing. Williams stopped to take in the sounds that have replaced the lowing cows and grunts of swine. Bobcats and even mountain lions roam here, he said.
"Imagine this spot at night: the tree frogs, the red-legged frogs, the owls and the deer in the forest and the coyotes howling. There's probably a major animal party here at night."