The Hearst Corporation donated the Castle to the State of California in December of 1957, but retained the extensive surrounding property to continue to operate as a cattle ranch as has been done since Senator George Hearst made his first land grant purchase in 1865.
While the beauty of the Castle’s surrounds and the storied past of the place is celebrated as part of the history of the Central Coast and Hearst legacy, the modern day conservation story of this ranch is the latest chapter. The herds of zebra that graze on the ranch are a not-so-subtle hint that not only the Castle, but also the land that surrounds it is special.
The Piedra Blanca Rancho at San Simeon reaches from inland mountains down to the sea where it extends along 18 miles of scenic, pristine coastline. This 128-square mile property contains most ecosystems in California and is home to more than one thousand plant and animal species. The ranch is also home to descendants of William Randolph Hearst’s wild animal park, such as zebra, Sambar Deer, Barbary Sheep that escaped over a three-quarters of a century ago.
Hearst’s unparalleled San Simeon Ranch is now preserved in perpetuity thanks to a conservation commitment and donations made by the Hearst Corporation to the citizens of California.
With its partners The American Land Conservancy, The California Rangeland Trust and the State of California, a historic conservation agreement was cemented into history on February 18, 2005 with the official recording of the documents. These agreements ensure that the Ranch’s conservation values–its agricultural productivity, biodiversity, and scenic vistas and coastlines—are perpetually conserved.
The Hearst Ranch Conservation Easement
Over a period of thirty years beginning in the mid-1960s, the Hearst Corporation had considered various development proposals for the Ranch. These included golf courses, large resorts, residential homes, and even an airport and yacht harbor.
In the late 1990s, the Hearst Corporation’s Real Estate Division, led by Stephen Hearst (William Randolph Hearst’s great grandson) began to explore conservation options as an alternative. In December of 2002, the non-profit conservation organization American Land Conservancy and the Hearst Corporation agreed upon a framework for the conservation transaction and over the next two years the details of this complicated project were hammered out.
American Land Conservancy and The California Rangeland Trust were the non-profit organizations involved in the negotiations. The State of California was represented by The Resources Agency, Wildlife Conservation Board, the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the California Coastal Conservancy and the Department of Transportation.
The project closed in February 2005, and was the outcome of a truly collaborative effort that involved multiple public meetings and thousands of hours of work, resulting in the “largest and most complex conservation deal in the United States” (New York Times).
Hearst’s Piedra Blanca Rancho has been an operating cattle ranch since the mid-1800s. The family takes great pride in this property and it is maintained to the highest of standards. The size, high quality of the rangeland as well as the extremely diverse assemblage of plants and animals is what makes this ranch unique and a jewel of California’s Central Coast.
The Hearst Ranch Conservation Project protected the Ranch’s working landscape and conservation values, its agricultural productivity, biodiversity, scenic vistas, and coastlines in perpetuity.
The ranch possesses productive, agriculturally viable, and well-managed rangeland, comprised of a variety of native perennial grasslands, Mediterranean grasslands and coastal prairie, as well as areas of prime farmland, cropland soils, and irrigated pastures of Local Potential and Local Importance as identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the California Department of Conservation.
Biodiversity, Watersheds, and Ecological Connectivity
The Hearst Ranch boasts one of the most remarkable and diverse assemblages of native plants, plant communities and natural habitats in all of California, including more than 1,000 plant and wildlife species.
In total, the Easement Area contains at least seven major watershed drainages covering a total of approximately 80,000 acres of the Central California coast and inland foothill region. This includes the San Carpoforo, Arroyo de la Cruz, Oak Knoll/Arroyo Laguna, Little Pico Creek, Pico Creek, Nacimiento, and the Little Burnett Creek/Tobacco Creek watersheds.
The Ranch’s vast grasslands, woodlands and forests, provide a critical link connecting migratory pathways and habitat corridors between Central and Southern California. It provides a continuous habitat link to the Los Padres National Forest, Fort Hunter Liggett, and the Nacimiento and San Antonio watersheds.
The Ranch contains unsurpassed coastal scenic vistas, Santa Lucia Mountain views, and the historic working ranching landscape as viewed by millions of visitors along State Highway 1, a federally designated All-American Road, and from the Hearst Castle, which is visited by several hundred thousand people each year.
Today, Hearst Ranch continues to be a working cattle ranch producing grass fed, free range Hearst Ranch Beef.