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Environmentalists, Paul Ringgold, left, and Ruskin Hartley, walk up to an old growth redwood tree, at least 32 feet in diameter, on the property near Davenport, on Friday, Dec. 2, 2011. In one of the largest land preservation deals in the Bay Area, five environmental groups will pay $30 million to buy 8,532 acres on the Santa Cruz coast from Cemex, a cement giant based in Mexico. The property, which is 8 miles long, extends from the tiny town of Davenport from Cemex's cement plant high into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Covered with redwood, it has been owned by companies that have operated the cement plant since 1905. The plant closed three years ago, and now the Peninsula Open Space Trust, Save the Redwoods League and other groups, funding with donations from Silicon Valley foundations, are buying the land to stop it from being developed.

For 105 years, the towering Davenport cement plant on Santa Cruz County's rural north coast produced the cement that built Northern California, including such varied and prodigious projects as the Golden Gate Bridge, BART, Oakland City Hall, Folsom Dam, Candlestick Park and the Stanford Medical Center.

But now the plant, shuttered last year, is leaving a different kind of landmark. In one of the largest land preservation deals in the Bay Area in a generation, five conservation groups have signed an agreement to buy 8,532 acres around the plant for $30 million.

The property, which is eight miles long and the largest piece of privately owned land in Santa Cruz County, stretches from the remote ridges of Bonny Doon almost to the Pacific Ocean. The broad expanse of redwood and oak forests is home to mountain lions, peregrine falcons and endangered coho salmon.

When the deal, funded with donations from Silicon Valley foundations and nonprofits, closes Dec. 16, it will help link 26,000 acres of protected open space from Big Basin Redwoods State Park to Wilder Ranch State Park - an area about the size of San Francisco.

"This is a huge opportunity," said Walter Moore, president of the Peninsula Open Space Trust in Palo Alto, one of the buyers. "The inspiring, magical thing is that we've come together with a common vision to do something bigger and grander than we could have otherwise."

While the deal will eventually open the scenic land to hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, one provision will allow timber companies to continue to do some logging on the property -- which some of Santa Cruz County's most ardent environmentalists could oppose.

But if the property had been sold to developers, its zoning and land use rules would have allowed up to 69Â luxury homes. Although the property has been logged fairly regularly over the past 50 years, it does not contain a single house.

"It's really close to the 7.5Â million people who live in the Bay Area," said Ruskin Hartley, executive director of Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco. "But it feels wild and remote."

A who's who

Under the purchase, the environmental groups will pay Cemex, a Mexican building materials company that owns the land, for nearly all of its property. However, Cemex's hulking cement plant, visible for miles along Highway 1, is not included in the deal. Closed in January, 2010 amid lack of demand for construction materials, the plant remains for sale, along with a few hundred other acres and a quarry.

Bankrolling the deal is a Who's Who of Bay Area land preservation groups. The Peninsula Open Space Trust will contribute $16 million. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Palo Alto, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in Los Altos will give a combined $8 million. The Sempervirens Fund, in Los Altos, will contribute $5Â million and the Nature Conservancy in San Francisco, an additional $500,000.

Unlike previous open space deals in the Bay Area, the environmental groups do not plan to sell or donate the property to the California state parks department. Because of state budget cuts, Gov. Jerry Brown plans to close about one-quarter of California's 279 state parks by July and the state parks department is refusing nearly all new lands, even when they are donated.

Instead, the groups plan to spend the next two years conducting detailed biological surveys of the forests, streams and wildlife on the property. Then, they'll place a conservation easement over it, which will limit development, logging and other uses. That easement will be held by the Save the Redwoods League and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.

Finally, the groups plan to sell the lands to a new owner, probably a timber company, and allow limited logging. The sale will not only help reimburse their purchase costs, they say, but it also will provide jobs and tax revenue to the county from the property, which is so big that it makes up 12 percent of all the land in Santa Cruz County zoned for timber harvesting.

A new model

Cemex and the previous owner, RMC Lonestar, logged nearly all of the land on a rotation of every 14Â years, removing about 35Â percent of the redwood and Douglas fir each time. Hartley said the environmental groups will put the several hundred old-growth trees off-limits, along with areas near streams where coho salmon and steelhead trout live.

"Our assumption is that when the dust settles, the protections in place will be stricter than those in the rest of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties," he said.

Plans also include public access. There are about 70 miles of unpaved roads on the property, and the environmental groups hope to use the land to link Big Basin Redwoods with other parks and open space preserves stretching down the coast.

"I'd like to hope it would be in two or three years, but we have to do the management plan first," said Terry Corwin, executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.

Politically, the wider plan will probably attract controversy in Santa Cruz County, known for its tenacious environmental activism. In 1998, working with money from the Packard Foundation, the Trust for Public Land in San Francisco bought the other huge property near the cement plant, the 7,000-acre Coast Dairies and Land Ranch, for about $40Â million from several Swiss families whose descendants had purchased it a century before.

Although the land trust transferred six major beaches on the ranch to state park ownership in 2006, it has been thwarted from giving the bulk of the land to the federal Bureau of Land Management. Several local environmental groups, concerned about BLM ownership, sued to block the transfer, asserting that permission was needed from the California Coastal Commission to divide the parcels. The groups lost last year, but they have appealed the case.

Corwin said that in an era when state parks are not accepting any new property, the Cemex redwoods deal offers a new model.

"We believe this is a newer and smarter way to do conservation," she said, "and in the end won't cost as much."

Contact Paul Rogers at 408-920-5045.