Group preserves Sonora-area ranch with Hollywood history

jholland@modbee.comJune 22, 2014 

The Ratto Ranch, two miles west of Sonora, fed gold miners in its early years and has been a backdrop for “High Noon” and other Hollywood productions.

Now, thanks to a conservation easement, the 238-acre spread off Jamestown Road will continue to produce beef cattle rather than risk being sliced into ranchettes.

The state has awarded $350,000 to the Tuolumne County Land Trust, which has used the money to purchase the easement from landowner Alton McRae of Mariposa. It requires that he and future owners maintain the land for agriculture and wildlife habitat on and near Table Mountain.

McRae said Thursday that he reached the deal “to stave off the subdividers and keep it pristine and beautiful.” His brother, Ben McRae, will continue to run cattle on the land. The agreement does not allow public recreation, other than up to eight guided tours per year.

The money came from a fund created by the California Department of Transportation to compensate for the environmental effects of road projects.

Conservation easements have been used to protect farms, ranches and habitat from encroaching development. The Sardella Ranch, east of Sonora, came under this arrangement last year via the California Ranchland Trust and the state Wildlife Conservation Board. Several have been placed by other partners in the northern San Joaquin Valley.

The Ratto family acquired its land in 1864 and used it at various times to produce fruits, vegetables, milk and beef.

For their protection efforts, Alton McRae and his late wife, Janis, who was a descendant of the first owners, were given the Gold Nugget award by the Tuolumne County Historical Society at its annual Lamplight Dinner on April 26.

The property has oaks, pines and other vegetation, including the rare flowers found on Table Mountain, a volcanic formation that spreads across part of western Tuolumne County. The site also has vernal pools, which are seasonal habitat for wildlife, and the headwaters of Peppermint Creek.

The property, including its 1909 ranch house, has been part of the county’s long history as a movie and television location. The first film shot on the site was “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1936, followed by “High Noon,” “The Birds” and others. TV shows include “Lassie,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Highway to Heaven.” The site will remain available for filming, McRae said.

Brian Kermeen, president of the land trust, said the easement will provide a barrier to development such as the 5-acre parcels created near its eastern boundary.

“It has been in the family for 150 years,” he said. “They want to keep it that way.”

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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