San Vicente Redwoods 1 of the biggest unprotected forests around

For more than a century, the coastal town of Davenport, just up Highway 1 from Santa Cruz, stood in the shadow of a giant cement plant.

Many of the town’s 400 or so residents worked in the factory, lived in homes beneath its smokestacks and gazed up at thousands of acres of wooded hillsides that plant operators mined or logged.

But the closing of the plant four years ago – amid a declining economy and environmental concerns – has ushered in a new chapter for the community, and conservation groups marked a major milestone last week in a bid to preserve the picturesque land and open it to the public.

The vast acreage, roughly 6 miles long and 2 miles wide, holds one of the largest unprotected swaths of redwood forest in the region. It’s home to mountain lions, peregrine falcons and coho salmon. Environmentalists and local leaders say it’s ripe for a trail system linking Big Basin Redwoods State Park and the federally run Coast Dairies bluffs.

“The town of Davenport was there because of the cement plant. Now, we really have the opportunity to pivot and turn a major polluter into a real positive for the community,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Neal Coonerty, who represents the rugged coastal area north of Santa Cruz.

The preservation effort in Davenport is one of the biggest and priciest the region has seen.

Easement needed

In 2011, the Peninsula Open Space Trust of Palo Alto partnered with Sempervirens Fund of Los Altos to buy 8,500 acres from plant owner Cemex for $30 million. But because neither group is in a financial position to hold the property and manage it – and California’s state park system has been shy about funding new acquisitions – the groups plan to sell the land to a private party.

To make sure the future owner doesn’t lay waste to the land, the groups are working with Save the Redwoods League of San Francisco to draw up a conservation easement that would permanently bar development.

Last week, the California Wildlife Conservation Board approved $10 million in public funding to move that easement forward.

“This is one of the most substantial redwood forested properties in the Santa Cruz mountains,” said Sam Hodder, president of Save the Redwoods League. “The easement will make sure these lands stay an intact forest, undivided and undeveloped.”

The cement plant itself remains in the hands of Cemex. Its future is not known.

Changes feared

The plant, which opened in 1906, had been a significant employer in the Santa Cruz area, and longtime workers spoke proudly of its history supplying materials for the Golden Gate Bridge, Candlestick Park and the California Aqueduct.

Cemex shuttered it in 2010 because the demand for building materials had fallen considerably during the recession. The company was also struggling to get environmental approval to expand its limestone quarry, and it was reeling from the discovery of cancer-causing chromium 6 in the air around the site.

At that time, fear spread among locals that a developer would swoop in and build luxury homes on the hills once Cemex moved out. Proposals in the past – ultimately doomed by opposition – had called for subdivisions and even a nuclear power plant in the area.

Ready to go hiking

Now, the plan to protect the Cemex land from development seems to be sitting well with many residents.

Roger Knapp, a real estate agent who lives in Davenport with his wife and 9-year-old son, said he looks forward to bird-watching and hiking on the property, which he can see from his front door.

“It’s been privately held and patrolled for a long time, and access has been real limited,” he said. “I see this as a real positive.”

Knapp’s only concern, which is shared by others in the community, is that the redwoods will bring an overwhelming number of visitors to town.

“We’re all just hoping Davenport can retain its unique charm,” he said. “You can imagine the whole greater Silicon Valley coming to your street, and parking and walking around.”

The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is leading the effort for public access, though it hasn’t been determined exactly where visitors might enter the former Cemex property, now called San Vicente Redwoods. And the conservation consortium is still figuring out how crowds will be managed and policed within the sprawling forest.

The jobs lost with the plant closure also remain a concern in town. About 120 mostly union positions vanished, and many residents who didn’t move away would like to see another source of employment emerge.

A little work may come with the return of logging on the land. The conservation easement will open up about 45 percent of the property to sustainable timber harvesting as incentive for someone to buy the site, perhaps a timber company, according to the environmental groups.

The terms for logging, though, have not been specified.

Boost through tourism

Catherine Elliott, project manager with Save the Redwoods League, said she also expects the site to offer an economic boost to Davenport through tourism.

But the most important feature of the project, supporters say, is simply the land itself.

“It’s beautiful hiking in these redwoods,” said longtime Davenport resident Noel Bock. “How wonderful to have this land opened to the community.”

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @kurtisalexander

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