• U.S.

Environment: Playgrounds for a Price

3 minute read

Californians turn chunks of wilderness into private parks

The Klamath River winds down over the Oregon border into the deep green wilderness of Siskiyou County in northern California, bringing with it the finest steelhead and salmon fishing in the West. Rugged hills jut up from its banks, shadowed by towering trees. In the valleys beyond lie sparkling blue streams and half a dozen clear lakes. Not a single country house mars the virgin beauty of this vast territory. Yet it is the personal playground of some 2,500 nature lovers.

These happy few share in an unusual private fiefdom called R-Ranch (Get it?—”Our Ranch”), one of three such pioneering parks in the state. The idea is simple: an outdoorsman buys an R-Ranch ownership share that grants him not a piece of the land but a piece of the action: recreational free rein over the whole park area. This makes R-Ranch an almost ideal solution to the problem of wilderness use. The land is kept from subdividers; it is also saved from typical state park despoilment. After all, R-Ranchers are hardly apt to litter their own property.

The local economy benefits too. Siskiyou County does not have to build roads, sewers and schools for the R-Ranch campers. Nor does it need to provide the community fire and police protection that a town would require. Yet it reaps almost $2 million annually in property taxes and other income from the private preserve. The biggest winners may be the original developers, who stand to collect a windfall by selling ownership shares at a profit. Under California state law, a bank holds campers’ antes in escrow until 60% of the allotted deeds have been sold. Then their deeds, like stocks, are theirs to keep, bestow, bequeath or barter—at the best possible price. The money, meanwhile, passes to the original investors.

That makes the land buyers a curious blend of investor-cum-idealist. R-Ranch’s founder is Jeff Dennis, 55, a rancher and hunter who tells of bunking with fellow Marine Ted Williams when both men were flying F9 Panther jets over Korea. Says he: “I’m not an out-and-out environmentalist, but I believe in keeping as much land intact as we can.” He paid about $5 million for five adjoining cattle ranches that totaled 5,119 acres, then in 1971 established his park with amenities that include more than 850 campsites and a large bunkhouse. After setting his membership ceiling at 2,500, he sold his first shares at $4,590; the last ones went for $9,000, leaving him a profit of more than $1 million.

In 1977, another sportsman, Richard Carlsberg, 46, opened Pines Recreational Park, a 7,000-acre stretch of timberland in the sparsely populated northeast corner of the state (near Alturas). Facilities include a general store, laundromat and gas station, all of which made the $995 base price for shares so inviting that more than a few campers were incredulous about the park’s land value. Doubts soon dissolved: so far, 2,800 ownerships have been sold (ceiling: 7,000).

The venture was such a success that Carlsberg opened posher Stallion Springs Horse Ranch in semiarid land north of Los Angeles. Campers at Stallion are less interested in roughing it than riding it, drawn by the park’s boarding stables, corrals and an equestrian show ring that seats 600. Though he also runs a profitable real estate and construction company, Carlsberg is concerned, he says, about “retaining land as much as possible in its natural beauty.”

And the more land the better: currently between them, Dennis and Carlsberg have irons in the fire for seven more parks.

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