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Remote Pine Flat Road northeast of Healdsburg once carried visitors to a 19th century boom-and-bust mining town, traces of which have all but disappeared.

In more recent decades, it's been the site of deer poaching, target shooting and even the occasional dumping of a human body from a crime committed elsewhere.

But things are different these days.

On a recent tour of a green, hilly preserve about four miles up the road from Alexander Valley, biologist Sherry Adams spoke of the transformation taking place.

"Our strategy is changing how it feels to come up Pine Flat Road," she said. "It was a Wild West mentality."

As more land in the area has come under some form of conservation protection, the deer poaching around Pine Flat has pretty much stopped, she said.

The area now is defined by 12,000 acres of contiguously protected properties that are wildlife and plant havens.

But the most isolated and private parcel is the 1,750-acre Modini-Ingalls Ecological Preserve, just acquired by Audubon Canyon Ranch, for which Adams works.

"It's a natural treasure," Adams said of the land, home to deer, black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, fox, otters, turtles and nesting golden eagles.

The property belonged to the late Jim and Shirley Modini, the couple who bequeathed the former sheep and cattle ranch to Audubon Canyon Ranch.

It had been in Jim Modini's family since 1852, when his aunt and uncle, Theresa and Timothy Ingalls, were homesteaders there.

The Modinis, who began living on the property in the mid-1940s, were known for their love of the land and animals.

After initially placing a "forever wild" easement on it in exchange for $1 million from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, they deeded the property to the environmental organization.

The transfer became final in late December, five months after the widowed Shirley Modini died.

Now it's the setting for scientific studies and habitat restoration projects, some of them funded by an endowment of more than $1 million that the Modinis attached to their gift.

"It's a great laboratory," said Scott Feierabend, executive director of Audubon Canyon Ranch.

The land rises from 400 feet above sea level to the 2,700-foot peaks of Ingalls bluff. It has lofty views of Mount Saint Helena, Knights and Alexander valleys and encompasses three creek systems that flow into the Russian River.

The 2004 Geysers Fire ravaged the area and destroyed a barn on the Modini property. Although there still are blackened trunks of pine, oak and Douglas fir, many saplings regenerated from the ashes.

"It's a remarkable story of how nature heals itself," Feierabend said.

On a tour Thursday, Adams pointed out some of the pines with cones that do not open to spill their seeds without fire. And she noted the serpentine outcrops with harsh soils in which rare plants can grow.

"We're a hot spot of rare and native plants," she said, stooping to touch a clump of indigenous grass with roots that may be hundreds of years old.

"It gives a hint of what California grasslands once looked like," she said.

Scientists are not only cataloging and studying the plants and flowers at the preserve, and how they adapted to fire, but are monitoring the more than 90 species of breeding birds.

Researchers are also doing inventories of animals such as amphibians -- from salamanders to newts and rare frogs.

Some limited cattle grazing, believed to increase diversity and native plant growth, is allowed.

The property has a historic road that was taken by stagecoach driver Clark Foss, a charismatic showman who delighted and terrified passengers with his fast driving to and from The Geysers geothermal area, where tourists would go to view steamy white fumaroles and bathe in mineral pools.

The Modini-Ingalls preserve is closed to the general public, per the Modinis' wishes. But Audubon Canyon Ranch also manages the adjacent 1,620-acre Mayacamas Sanctuary, open to self-guided hikes as well as a number of monthly guided hikes led by a naturalist.

Pine Flat Road runs through it and also includes the remnants of the mining town that may have numbered 2,000 people at one point.

"There were churches, brothels and schools," Adams said, although frequent fires left hardly a trace of the settlement, save some building foundations.

ACR, now in its 50th year, has other preserves as well. They include the 535-acre Bouverie Preserve near Glen Ellen; the 500-acre Cypress Grove Research Center in Marshall along the shores of Tomales Bay, and the 1,000-acre Martin Griffin Preserve near Stinson Beach.

Information on tours and public access of the Mayacamas Sanctuary are available at 431-8184 or

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason

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