Peter Read and Circle R Ranch

Peter Read, left, is the owner of the Circle R Ranch on Atlas Peak Road. Working with Joel Tranmer, right, he is granting a conservation easement to the Land Trust of Napa County as a wildlife sanctuary and corridor.

J.L. Sousa, Register

Peter Read envisions his 1,600-acre Circle R ranch near Atlas Peak as a place with vineyards and cattle – and as a key piece of what amounts to an eastern Napa Valley ridge animal highway.

He emphasizes that last item. Read plans to preserve more than half the ranch so black bears, mountain lions, bobcats and other creatures will always be able to pass through as they traverse the mountain range.

Circle R won’t be dominated by ranchette homes, not ever.

“The animals need a place to live,” Read said on a recent, hot day at his Foss Valley ranch in the mountains northeast of the city of Napa.

He is working with Land Trust of Napa Valley on a conservation easement to strip certain development rights. Circle R will remain as private property, but parts of the ranch will become an animal sanctuary legally off-limits to the bulldozer.

Circle R will be one more link in the chain. The Land Trust is trying to create a permanently protected wildlife corridor in the eastern Napa Valley mountains stretching some 30 miles from north of Calistoga to Napa.

“The big animals have pretty big ranges, they need to just regularly move,” Land Trust CEO Doug Parker said. “And it’s not just for animals. Even plants over time move as they respond to climate change or whatever.”

Humans also benefit, he said. Preserving the land from development protects the scenic views that residents and visitors to Napa Valley prize. It protects the watershed for reservoirs serving local cities.

Such key properties as the 7,260-acre Montesol easement near Mount St. Helena and the 3,030-acre Dunn-Wildlake Ranch east of Calistoga are already preserved. Next should be Circle R, which will fit in with the nearby 1,318-acre Mead Ranch and 1,380-acre Sutro Ranch preserve.

Parker doesn’t view completing a permanently protected east Napa wildlife corridor as being a distant dream.

“Actually, to connect the dots isn’t as daunting a task as you might think,” Parker said. “We think in the next three to five years, we could do it. There are only about 15 properties you would need to do it, Peter’s being an absolutely critical one.”

Circle R ranch has hills covered with oaks, manzanita, California bay and other trees, grassy flatlands and seasonal wetlands. Wildlife in the area includes turkeys, mule deers, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, black bears, Cooper’s hawks and striped skunks.

Read can recite the human history of the property back to pioneer William Clarke in 1864. Clarke bought the Foss Valley land with scrip he received for fighting in the Civil War, he said.

Napa County in January 2012 approved an erosion control plan allowing more than 300 acres of vineyards on Circle R, with the property already having 27 acres of vineyards. The ranch was at that time called Circle S.

Read, a former CEO for Grocery Outlet, Inc., tried to buy the land in 2003 and succeeded doing so in 2015. He talks of giving back most of the approved, potential vineyard land—the agricultural equivalent of gold—to the animals.

“People would say, ‘That guy’s lost his marbles,’” Read said.

To make the ranch financially viable, he’ll have about 60 acres of mostly cabernet, with some potential vineyard land held in reserve, just in case. He’ll run cattle on part of Circle R, both to control vegetation and to honor the property’s long history as a cattle ranch.

“Cattle/cab” are the words on Read’s business card.

Read said this model can be successful for others. He thinks others can set aside land for wildlife while having enough farming on their properties so they don’t lose money.

“People can do it on a smaller scale or a bigger scale,” Read said.

Read grew up in the Bay Area, but as a youth worked at times for his father’s feed store on Lincoln Avenue in Napa, doing such chores as delivering rabbit pellets. His grandfather owned land in the Stags’ Leap area.

“So Napa has always been part of it,” Read said.

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Thirty-five years ago, he met local resident Joel Tranmer as part of the Young Presidents’ Organization for chief executive peers. Tranmer’s father helped found the Land Trust and Tranmer lives in a house his parents built on Mount George. The Land Trust recently gave Tranmer and his wife Kathy its Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Joel and I are friends who go way back, many years, and we share an appreciation for the environment together,” Read said.

Tranmer spent time in Foss Valley as a high schooler on land owned by a family friend and told Read about the area. Now he is helping Read rejuvenate the ranch with an emphasis on the habitat, though they’ve also done such tasks as renovate two historic barns.

He noted that Milliken Creek runs through Circle R on its way to the city of Napa’s Milliken Reservoir, a drinking water source that the city of Napa wants to keep free of pollutants. The headwaters are on the adjoining property and Circle R has more than two miles of the creek.

“We’re really going to take care of it,” Tranmer said.

Read and Tranmer have placed remote cameras on the property to see the wildlife there. Among the results are photographs of a mother black bear and her cub and a bobcat.

Conservation easements are legal agreements restricting development on a private property, though they can still allow for such things as agriculture. They are tailored for individual properties. Donors can take advantage of tax incentives.

Parker said other people who want to donate land or conservation easements to the Land Trust can call 252-3270. The Land Trust is presently talking to about 20 different landowners about different projects.

Read is setting an example by pursing a conservation easement to protect a wildlife corridor, Parker said.

“He didn’t have to do it, obviously,” Parker said. “But he is doing something significant and truly lasting, too.”

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Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He was worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield. He is a graduate of UC Sa