Press Release

Thornton Ranch Permanently Preserved After Nine-Year Effort

August 15, 2011

Pt. Reyes Station, Calif. – After nine years, the most complicated conservation project in the 30-year history of Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) is finally complete. MALT, with financial help from the USDA, the California Department of Conservation, and generous private donors, has permanently protected the 1,013-acre Thornton Ranch in western Marin County. This ranch completes an 8,000-acre greenbelt of MALT-protected farmland that surrounds the historic town of Tomales and reaches to the shores of Tomales Bay.

The story of MALT’s protection of the Thornton Ranch spans almost an entire decade. Gary Thornton inherited the ranch in 2000, after his father died unexpectedly. Selling the family’s dairy herd to pay the estate taxes did not make enough to cover the entire IRS bill, so Gary sought MALT’s assistance. “I first met Gary Thornton in MALT co-founder Ellen Straus’s kitchen in 2002,” said Robert Berner, Executive Director at MALT. But MALT’s easement purchase was stalled by an adverse IRS ruling related to an alternative valuation of his father’s estate: Gary Thornton, technically the ranch’s new owner, faced a stiff tax penalty if he sold any part of the property—even a conservation easement—before the 10-year anniversary of his father’s death and Thornton’s inheritance of the ranch. Nevertheless, MALT continued working with Thornton, devising innovative financing solutions to survive the 10-year period—and an economic recession—to keep the ranch in active, commercial agriculture. Now the wait is over, and MALT has finally been able to purchase a conservation easement, protecting the agricultural and natural resources of the ranch forever.

The funds from this sale will allow Thornton to pay off the estate taxes, continue to raise beef and sheep, and, most importantly, keep his family on the ranch—where it has been for over 150 years and six generations. Daughter Marissa, who recently graduated from Chico State University with a degree in Animal Science, plans to stay on the property and continue the family’s ranching tradition, with an eye towards rebuilding the family dairy and making cheese.

This fertile coastal rangeland is now protected from subdivision and non-agricultural development—forever. “We are delighted that we were able to complete this transaction and help ensure the property will stay in the family and remain an important part of Marin’s agricultural landscape and legacy for generations to come,” says Berner. Gary Thornton added, “If there was no MALT, the ranch would be sold by now. It’s as simple as that.”

Funding for the $2,329,500 project, MALT’s 68th conservation easement, came from a combination of state, federal and private sources: The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service granted $810,000, the Department of Conservation (DOC)’s California Farmland Conservancy Program provided $480,000, and the remaining $1,039,500 came from MALT’s donors and supporters.

“We are proud to have contributed toward permanently shielding the Thornton Ranch from development,” said DOC’s Acting Director, Derek Chernow. “Congratulations to the landowners, our federal funding partners, and especially to MALT, for showing perseverance, patience and dedication in seeing this project through to completion.”

CONTACT: BOB BERNER, Executive Director, (415) 663-1158 ext. 301,