8 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY MARCH 28-APRIL 3, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com 831 Last fall, as Kat HardistyCranstone was entering her first semester as a grad student at CSU Monterey Bay studying environmental sciences, she took a trip out to Rana Creek Ranch in Carmel Valley with her professor Fred Watson. Their aim was to inquire about an internship for Hardisty-Cranstone with the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County. Since the ’80s, the sprawling 14,000acre Rana Creek Ranch was owned by former Apple chairman and CEO Mike Markkula, and after years of trying to sell it, he finally did last summer. The nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy bought it for $35 million, $26 million of which came from state agencies. The conservancy acquires land with the intent of opening it to the public— free of charge—for hiking and camping, and outdoor education programs for youth groups. Once the deal was done, the conservancy established a partnership with the Esselen Tribe so that it could help provide guidance about the history of the land, and its natural and cultural resources. (The conservancy intends to sell to the tribe the approximately 2,000 acres of the property south of Carmel Valley Road.) Hardisty-Cranstone landed both an internship with the tribe and a job as preserve manager for the Conservancy. She now lives onsite in a ranch home not far from the modest estate Markkula sometimes vacationed at. On a recent March day, Watson and Hardisty-Cranstone meet at the property’s 9,000-square-foot conference center, just a short drive north through the locked gate at Carmel Valley Road. Their aim is to make further progress on Hardisty-Cranstone’s internship project, which is to assess the quantity and biodiversity of the property’s vernal ponds, which Watson says are unusually common on the vast property, which is filled with grassy, rolling hills dotted by oak trees as far as the eye can see, and much further. They decide to start off with a few ponds just south of Carmel Valley Road, and after hiking through some saturated grassland, come upon the first pond of the day. Both set about examining life at the pond’s edge, and Hardisty-Cranstone quickly spots some western toad eggs, which look like a pile of clear udon noodles with a chain of black eggs encased within each. She also spots a number of tadpoles, which she can tell are toads—she calls them “toadpoles.” There are also dozens of tiny chorus frogs hopping about, which she cautions against stepping on. Watson turns his focus to the plants—he says they’re mostly non-native, and adds that the fault lines running down this part of Carmel Valley are what created these ponds over millennia by lifting the land up and tilting it. “Faults create the pond, cattle come and trash the pond,” he adds. Later in the day, Watson leads the way up Aqua Mala Creek, lined with stately valley oaks that are hundreds of years old. He explains that cattle grazing has, in part, prevented the regeneration of oaks across the state, and points to a foot-tall oak nub with only a few leaves, which he guesses is about 15 to 20 years old—it gets nibbled back every year. Hardisty-Cranstone emphasizes that exactly how the conservancy plans to utilize the land is still an open question. “This place is kind of a blank slate,” she says. “There hasn’t been a lot of research done here for decades.” Public access is coming—both from Carmel Valley Road and where the property hits the Salinas Valley—but is a few years in the offing, after baseline environmental assessments. Whether or not all or parts of the ranch are eventually closed off to cattle grazing remains unknown—the idea now, one that both the tribe and conservancy are invested in, is getting a clearer picture of ecosystems as they exist right now, which will help inform how to manage the property going forward. “The opportunity here is absolutely ridiculous,” Watson says, adding that the entire Sierra de Salinas range has historically been closed off to public access. “There’s so much opportunity to do the right thing with an incredibly unique chunk of land. You don’t want to go picking wildflowers when you could really make a dent in a California conservation priority.” Wide Open Rana Creek Ranch—a vast, majestic property in Carmel Valley—is slated to become a recreational treasure. By David Schmalz Kat Hardisty-Cranstone and Fred Watson look at a vernal pond on Rana Creek Ranch, a property in eastern Carmel Valley acquired last year by The Wildlands Conservancy. “The opportunity here is absolutely ridiculous.” TALES FROM THE AREA CODE DANIEL DREIFUSS “At Santa Cruz County Bank I know exactly who to call when I need answers. The Bank makes decisions at a local level – the same way I do. The Treasury Management team walked us through the efficiencies of online and mobile banking and the security of having positive pay protection – all of which keep our bookkeeper very happy!”