Reprinted with permission of The Sea Ranch Soundings
Author Laurie Mueller
Photo by Don Hess

At its Raising the Curtain event on September 17, the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy (RCLC) unveiled its comprehensive Mill Bend Preserve Conservation Plan designed to protect and restore the Mill Bend Preserve located just south of Gualala along the Gualala River.

Redwood Coast Land Conservancy succeeded in setting aside the beautiful 113-acre Mill Bend Preserve site in late 2020 after leading an intensive 3-year, $2.8 million campaign to purchase the property after it came on the market in 2017. Hundreds of people in our local community have supported the campaign to purchase and protect this impressive site.

Early on, the RCLC Board recognized the need to create a comprehensive plan to protect this ecologically important natural area. The Gualala River estuary and its surrounding wetlands, meadows, willows, and forested areas all provide rich and varied habitats which will require careful planning to preserve and protect.

The State Coastal Conservancy grant for the purchase the property included funds to hire Prunuske, Chatham, Inc., an environmental science and design consulting firm based in Sebastopol, to help guide the planning process. The resulting Mill Bend Preserve Conservation Plan presented in September provides a framework for long-term management of the Preserve to protect plants and wildlife and restore areas degraded by past use while allowing for responsible recreational access and strengthening the site’s resilience to changing environmental conditions.

As part of the planning process, RCLC reached out to the local community through surveys and public meetings for input on how the site should be used. While most respondents encouraged opportunities for public recreational access, they also raised concerns about protecting the site from overuse to avoid “loving it to death.” The new Mill Bend Preserve Conservation Plan is designed to strike a balance between preservation and restoration of the natural environment and responsible recreational public access to the site.

Managing the Preserve
RCLC also realized the need for professional staff to manage the newly-acquired Mill Bend site. With initial grant funds, RCLC was able to hire Project Manager Dave Shpak to oversee conservation planning, coordinate stewardship activities, and stabilize public access. RCLC has recently brought on board a new Executive Director, Jim Elias, to manage the implementation of the conservation plan for Mill Bend Preserve and to build RCLC’s capacity as an organization.

Jim is enthusiastic about his new role. “As a strong advocate of community-based, landscape-level conservation, I’m excited to work with the local community to put in place the elements of this new plan and to help realize the Preserve’s great potential.” Jim has dedicated his career to nonprofit leadership, including running land trusts and coordinating conservation acquisitions which succeeded in protecting more than 60,000 acres in the Sierra and Rocky Mountains. More recently, he managed finance and operations at Sonoma Ecology Center. Jim will work with the RCLC Board, key volunteers, and other members of the community to implement the various aspects of the plan.

The Mill Bend Preserve Conservation Plan identifies several habitat management considerations and recommends specific measures in each area to restore habitat health, support native species, and adapt to climate change. Habitats include redwood, bishop pine, and alder forests, coastal scrublands, grasslands, willow thickets and gravel bars, as well as emergent marsh and submerged aquatic vegetation. Particular attention has been paid to the Gualala River estuary and measures to restore viable habitats for steelhead, coho salmon and an array of amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, fish, and other aquatic species historically found in the estuary.

Recreational access
There are also plans to improve and connect trails throughout the Preserve to form an extensive trail network which will provide varied opportunities for recreation and environmental education. Among the plans are a seasonal trail crossing under the Gualala River Bridge to connect Preserve trails on the east and west side of Highway One without the need to cross high-speed vehicle traffic. Trails through the upland Preserve will connect the newly restored Gualala Cemetery with the Gualala Arts property. The recently restored River Rail Trail on the old lumber railroad bed extends through three riparian forests along the riverfront and connects to the Gualala Arts Center hillside trails. Short boardwalk trail segments are planned to provide access across sensitive wetland habitats. This network of trails will also connect to and extend the California Coastal Trail from the Gualala Bluff Trail to the estuary access.

Mill Bend volunteers already at work
In the meantime, under the guidance of the RCLC Stewardship Committee, RCLC volunteers have advanced several major stewardship activities while the full Mill Bend Preserve Conservation Plan was being developed. Most notable have been the ongoing restoration of the historic Gualala Cemetery, opening emergency and maintenance access, improving existing recreational access, and removing invasive species such as broom and pampas grass along with piles of rusted automobiles, concrete, rebar, and other debris.

Under a California Coastal Commission Whale Tail grant, Gualala River Stream Team volunteers organized by Timmarie Hammill have been monitoring the water quality of the impaired lower reach of the Gualala River and estuary to gather data important for the restoration and improvement of fish habitat in the estuary.

“Mill Bend Preserve provides so much potential to experience nature and connect people to place,” says Jim, mentioning cooperative efforts with community science partners like the Stream Team and the educational kayak trips for local school students organized by RCLC earlier this year. “I’m looking forward to working with the many people who share RCLC’s commitment to conserving, restoring and celebrating Mill Bend Preserve.”

For further information on the Mill Bend Preserve Conservation Plan, how to donate to the work of RCLC or how to sign up for their online mailing list, see the RCLC website at