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Conservationists and open space proponents this week completed the purchase of the Tilton Ranch in Morgan Hill, bolstering a continuous linkage of protected land throughout the South Bay that allows wildlife to live in peace and safely cross between mountain ranges on both sides of Santa Clara Valley.

The Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency, Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority and Peninsula Open Space Trust purchased the 1,861-acre Tilton Ranch for about $18 million. The property will “remain a multi-use landscape, with habitat protection, continued conservation grazing and numerous opportunities for outdoor public recreation,” reads a statement from the purchasing agencies.

The Tilton Ranch—which has been operated by the same family for more than 100 years—has been a “top conservation priority” for decades. 

The property—part of the Pajaro River watershed—is one of several recently purchased links in a 12,000-acre chain of protected property. On the north side of the Tilton Ranch is the 348-acre Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve, which the OSA purchased and developed for recreation in 2015. To the south of Tilton Ranch is the 603-acre Baird parcel in Morgan Hill, which the Habitat Agency acquired in December 2019. Farther north is the North Coyote Valley Conservation Area—about 940 acres acquired by OSA in November 2019.

These connect to additional parks and preserves through south San Jose and across U.S. 101 to the Coyote Ridge Open Space Preserve in the Diablo Range on the east side of the valley. From there, the open space and wilderness connection continues south to areas surrounding Anderson Lake County Park and Henry W. Coe State Park.

These protected properties together create a “horseshoe” of habitat throughout the South Bay, where animals and plants can thrive without interference, proponents said at the Tilton Ranch last week.

A map from the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority shoes a “horseshoe” of protected throughout the South Bay that links the valley’s various wildlife habitats. 

“This is part of a larger vision to provide conservation for wildlife, and recreation for citizens,” said Edmund Sullivan, Executive Director of the Habitat Agency. 

Sullivan said the importance of the Tilton Ranch and other Coyote Valley preserves is the presence of serpentine soils, which support rare, endangered and threatened plant life. These species include the coyote ceonothus shrub, which is found in only three regions in the world—north Morgan Hill being one such location.

Furthermore, it is “important for genetic diversity” of mountain lions and other mammals to be able to breed with animals from different locations. Allowing animals a path between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range will promote such diversity, Sullivan explained.

OSA General Manager Andrea Mackenzie noted that with the acquisition of the Tilton Ranch, there is now a protected wildlife linkage from the city limits of Morgan Hill up to Fisher Creek near the intersection of Highways 85 and 101 in San Jose.

Tilton Ranch, located just off Santa Teresa Boulevard in north Morgan Hill, opened in 1917 under the ownership of the Tilton family. The ranch has operated continuously since then, by descendants of the Tiltons. For much of that time, the land has been grazed with cattle and farmed for hay and grain. Cinnabar mining took place on part of the property in the early 1900s, but that usage ceased after World War Two.

The ranch also sits on ancestral lands of indigenous peoples, including the Muwekma Ohlone tribe and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

The Burback family was the most recent owner of the Tilton Ranch. Sullivan praised the family for being willing to sell to the open space agencies. The property could one day have been developed for housing.

“We are fortunate they were willing to sell,” Sullivan said. “Without willing landowners (to sell their properties), we can’t accomplish our vision.”

A rancher who purchased the Burbacks’ livestock will continue to graze cattle at the Tilton Ranch for the foreseeable future. Conservationists say cattle grazing is helpful to the long-term preservation of such properties. Grazing helps limit potential vegetation fuel for wildfires, and protecting agriculture is an important mission for the OSA and other agencies.

“The cattlemen are happy they can continue grazing on Tilton Ranch,” said OSA Board member Alex Kennett.

In the future, OSA and county parks will work on developing “wildlife friendly recreation” uses within Tilton Ranch. These could include trails for hiking, cycling and horseback riding.

The nearby Baird preserve, located off Hale Avenue in Morgan Hill, likely will never be opened to significant public use due to the sensitivity of some of the species that live there.

The combined Tilton-Baird properties support 13 natural land cover types, including habitat for five animal species and six California endemic plant species targeted for conservation by the Habitat Agency. These include the Bay checkerspot butterfly, California red-legged frog, foothill yellow-legged frog, California tiger salamander, western pond turtle, tricolored blackbird, western burrowing owl, Loma Prieta hoita, Mount Hamilton thistle and smooth lessingia.

Sullivan noted that Valley Water took part in the purchase of the Baird property in order to mitigate a portion of its impact on some of these species during the Anderson Dam Seismic Retrofit project.

The Tilton Ranch purchase was funded by about $10 million in grants from the California Wildlife Conservation Board and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; $1.4 million from the Habitat Agency; $2.4 million from OSA (including a $1 million grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission); $3.4 million from POST; and $1 million from county parks. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation provided $2 million toward the purchase through grants and program-related investment.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, whose district includes the Tilton Ranch, said, “I am excited to support the purchase of these lands and work with all of our vital partners to protect our wildlife habitats, while ensuring that all of our residents can enjoy more trail connectivity for activities such as hiking, biking and running.”

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Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.