Perry Gulch Ranch

by Bruce Patterson, November 18, 2009

“The best fertilizer for a plot of land is the footsteps of its owner.”

— Thoreau

Not long after the AVA published my piece “Perry Gulch,” I received a phone call. The fellah on the line announced that he and his partners have owned the 1,200 acre Perry Gulch preserve for 40 years. Cap Salmela had worked for them off and on for half that time and reading about him had brought back fond memories. When I asked the fellah if Cap had ever told him about how the beavers had helped sculpt the landscape, he laughed. Old Cap had told him so many stories that he couldn’t keep track of them all. Did I remember Frenchy the Basque?

We gabbed for awhile and, when the fellah asked me how old I was and I answered 60, he told me I was just a boy. If I still had enough legs under me he’d give me a 50¢ walking tour of the preserve. He’d even throw in a 25¢ pickup truck tour if I liked. So we set a date and, along with my wife, we met on the patio of the new Navarro Store for finger food and chitchat.

Mr. Henry Gundling is a tall, lanky and sprightly old gentleman of 77 years. Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1931, he remembers the river that ran through town and fishing it for giant sturgeon and catfish. Following in the footsteps of tens of thousands of WW2 and Korean War veterans from the Heartland, after he graduated high school Mr. Gundling came west to seek his fortune in the Golden State. With the help of the ROTC he graduated from Stanford University in 1953 and, degree in hand, he enlisted in the Air Force and became an intelligence officer. Realizing that the regimented life wasn’t for him, after one hitch he left active duty and returned to California. After spending a little time in Santa Rosa, where he met the woman that would become the mother of his three children and, until she passed away, his wife of 50 years, in 1957 the newlyweds moved to a little town with a big future by the name of Napa. Like his father before him, and one of his sons after him, Mr. Gundling became a stockbroker and he remained one until his retirement to the ranch in 1998.

In 1968 he and some friends bought the 1,200 acre parcel. In the late 19th Century the Albion Railroad Company had built a spur into Perry Gulch but, when the post-1906 earthquake logging boom went bust, the railroad went belly up. The Southern Pacific Land Co. moved in, bought the Perry Gulch parcel and many others. Over the next half century the land changed hands two of three more times. When Mr. Gundling and his friends bought the place as a retreat for their growing families, they saw how depleted the forest was but — unlike most other newcomers — they also saw its tremendous powers of regeneration. Having no need or desire to make a quick profit, they decided to help the process along. They’d leave the property in far better shape than when they found it, they resolved, and their descendants would do likewise.

I’d been inside Perry Gulch just once a long time ago, and then only part way and only to dump a load of firewood, so our tour was full of surprises. The bleached white redwood pilings of an old railroad trestle are still standing and I’d bet their clear-grained heartwood is still sound. The ranch headquarters is built on the site of the old train station and Perry Gulch is in fact six mostly flat-bottomed gulches draining into one. Topographically speaking, if the Navarro River is a twig then Perry Gulch is a white oak leaf sprouting from it. The stem of the leaf is the main creek and forking off from it are veins that, as the ground climbs, bends and steepens, fork into more veins and capillaries. While the upper reaches of the main watercourse look like excellent beaver country, the land quickly narrows and the deeper you go downstream the more it begins resembling a gulch. The road “ends” about three-quarters of a mile from the creek’s confluence with the Navarro River and, while we didn’t hike down there, from my vantage point I could see that the land that way is a genuine, TV Western cowboy gulch. Certainly there hadn’t been any beaver ponds down in there.

Since running water finds its level, no doubt the creeks are cut deeper now than they were 150 years ago. While the rate of erosion is the function of a number of variables, the process is simple. Touch your fingertip to the face of a sand dune and you’ll create an avalanche of sliding grains that grows as it descends. Simultaneously and in exact proportion, a ravine will race upward. Flatten the grade, turn sand into sandstone, wait a few million years and you’ll get something like Arizona’s Grand Canyon at one end and the late, great Colorado River Delta on the other.

Whether or not the rates of erosion within the Navarro River watershed are double or quadruple the natural norm, it is a powerful force. For example, some of the parcels in Boonville have the middle of Anderson Creek as one of their boundaries. My old surveyor friend, the late Don McMath, once told me how he’d established a point in the middle of the creek in the early 1980s. A few years back he returned to the spot for another survey and the middle of the creek had shifted nearly 18 feet.

If the annual rate of erosion on the Navarro River at its confluence with Perry Creek has averaged one inch per year since the coming of loggers, farmers, grazers and road builders, then it has dropped nearly a dozen feet. If so then the change is still being played out inside Perry Gulch. Or maybe because the river at that point runs over a slab of basalt or serpentine, or because it was already “flat,” the erosion has been negligible. If that’s the case then the network of creeks inside Perry Gulch hasn’t changed much since the Pomo were the land’s stewards. Of such mysteries daydreams are made.

What isn’t a mystery was how much labor, capital and thought has gone into the owner’s various restoration efforts. Zoned as a non-industrial timber farm, and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, over the last four decades the owners have planted about 600,000 seedling trees. Their efforts have been site specific with redwoods planted along the watercourses and in the shady spots, grand and Doug fir planted in the sunnier spots and, up high, ponderosa pines. They’ve kept their road building to a minimum and have engineered and maintained them with soil conservation in mind. Where necessary the outflows of their culverts are armored with rip rap to prevent scour and their creek crossings are discreet.

They’ve also put an emphasis on maintaining and improving the fishery and the wildlife habitat and they even have incorporated into their management plan the goal of maintaining and enhancing “esthetic values.” When they harvest timber it’s not “high grade” (take the biggest and best) but thinning operations designed to result in “release growth.” They even have a “legacy tree” provision that forbids the removal of individual trees that are fine representatives of their species, are well placed or, like standing snags, they enhance the wildlife habitat. In addition they built a two acre pond not as a mud bathtub for storing irrigation water but to create a biological oasis while providing recreational opportunities and fire protection. Alive with fish and birds, insects, amphibians and mammals pausing for a drink, and with its lush, sylvan setting, the pond is about as beautiful and peaceful as they come.

They manage the “multi-species” forest not just for sustained yield but to eventually increase their inventory to something like the historical norm. Since a young redwood tree that is 40 feet tall grows about 5% per year, it doubles in volume in 20 years and quadruples in 40, and already the fruits of their labor are obvious. In another couple of hundred years some of their seedling trees will be breaking over 300 in height.

At the end of our tour Mr. Gundling lent me a written copy of their management plan. I half expected the prose to be more computer age gibberish, but I shouldn’t have. Prepared in 2002 by Michael Howell, Boonville’s famed forester, it sets forth a unified, long term vision and a multifaceted implementation program to achieve it that is as straight-forward as it is logical and practical.

If there’s money to be made by liquidating natural resources, there is even more money to be made in restoring and enhancing them. It’s a shame more landowners don’t realize that.

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