MARTINEZ -- John Swett, father of California's public school system, and John Muir, father of the national park system, were friends, farmers and neighbors in the scenic Alhambra Valley hills.
A century after they died, a conservation group is buying 44 acres of Swett's hilly oak forests, olive orchards, and rugged grasslands to expand the adjacent national historic park site with Muir's home.
The old farm estates of two prominent Californians from Martinez are being linked to protect the nature and history they left behind.
"We feel this is a critical purchase that expands and protects this national park historic site," said Linus Eukel, executive director of the Muir Heritage Land Trust, a group that buys and manages open lands. "If we did not preserve this land, it's at risk of development that would negatively affect on the national park site, the views there and wildlife that live there."
A plan to develop six to eight homes on the property adjacent to the national park site faltered last year when a Central County sewer board balked at including the property in an area to be considered for annexation.
The owners of the property agreed last week to sell it to the land trust for $525,000 within the next nine months, the conservation group announced Saturday night at its annual dinner.
Now the conservation group must raise the purchase funds, plus other money to care for land along the Franklin Ridge for perpetuity.
Eukel said his group plans to turn the property over to the National Park Service to expand the 330-acre Muir Historic site, which includes the mansion where Muir lived until he died in 1914 -- a year after Swett died.
Before the addition can happen, though, Congress must approve the expansion of the Muir historic site.
Swett owned and farmed grapes and fruit on 185 acres next to Muir's farm estate, and the two men visited each other when Muir wasn't off hiking in Yosemite Valley and the Sierra. On a recent hike led by Eukel, olive trees on a ridge were among the few signs of the agricultural history on the property once owned by Swett, the California school superintendent from 1863 to 1867.
Thick stands of oak and bay trees cover much of the land and a deer bounded into the forest when it saw Eukel and land trust ranger Glen Lewis come into view during the hike. From the ridge top visitors can see views of the Alhambra Valley and Briones Regional Park to the south.
Eukel considers the 44 acres an expansion of the 320-acre Mount Wanda portion of the Muir national site, so named for Muir's daughter.
"We want this to be the southern flank of the national park," he said.
Purchase of the Swett land also will help connect the Bay Area Ridge Trail to the Muir Historic site, he said.
The Muir land trust owns or manages about 3,000 acres of open space and hiking areas in the hills between Martinez and Hercules.
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.