Miracles and Milestones: A Wildlife Crossing at Marywood

The Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose love Pumas… and deer… and bobcats… and foxes. We love them so much that we are working with The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County to create a wildlife crossing under Highway 17 at Laurel Curve to protect them from highway accidents. 

We own 150 acres of undeveloped land that we call Marywood. It is predominately forest, but also includes the headwaters of Bean Creek, a source of water for local animals and an historical spawning ground for Steelhead Trout and Coho Salmon. From 1934 – 1967, the property was used as a summer camp for orphans and students of Dominican day and boarding schools. Currently, it is used for retreats, small group meetings and our vacations. It is just east of Highway 17 at a very dangerous stretch of road. Forty-five percent of all animal deaths on Highway 17 occur here at Laurel Curve. That’s approximately 160 animals between 2012 – 2017. 

The wildlife crossing broke ground in February of 2022 and is likely to be completed this September. It will be a wonderful event when the first animal makes its way safely under Highway 17, but the journey to this point was long and sometimes seemed hopeless. In retrospect, we can see how God answered prayers and can mark the miracles and milestones that happened along the way. 

In 2008, we realized the costs for maintaining Marywood were high, and that we may have to sell the property to developers if we didn’t find a way for the land to support itself. Prayers began for God to provide a solution. So, we approached the Santa Cruz County Land Trust and asked if they could help preserve the property. The Land Trust found conservation value in Marywood but did not see a compelling reason that would motivate funders to invest. They said “No.” So we began to look for alternative means of support. We considered creating a wedding venue, building a spiritual retreat center, or partnering with a winery. All the while, asking God for His will for the land to become clear.

Unbeknownst to us, God was at work on His own plan. In 2011, UCSC completed a study on Puma routes and traffic around Highway 17. They found that the freeway divides the Pumas’ territory, limits their biodiversity, and weakens their species. This fact renewed interest in preserving land near the highway and launched the wildlife crossing project. 

In 2018, 10 years after our initial inquiry to the Land Trust, they called and asked if we were still interested in preserving their property. This was a miracle! The preferred solution to our financial concerns was likely to materialize. 

Nature is also a miracle. The fact that the Bean Creek headwaters are on Marywood property is simply amazing. The headwaters are one of the main reasons the Puma and other wildlife cross Highway 17 and come to Marywood. This passage, dangerous as it is for animals and humans, moved mountains and allowed hundreds of acres of land to be preserved for the wildlife in the area. 

As part of the Congregational discussion on whether to save or sell Marywood, Bryan Largay, a Conservation Director at the Land Trust, presented information on The Puma Project, a collaboration between UC Santa Cruz and the California Department of Fish and Game. He spoke about Marywood, its proximity to Laurel Curve, and the fact that it’s a key location for animals trying to cross the highway. His words were persuasive. A vote was taken to determine the fate of Marywood. Another miracle occurred. It was a unanimous decision in favor of preserving the property and working with the Land Trust to create a wildlife crossing. 

There were still more miracles. The Land Trust was able to raise $1.6 million for an easement on the Marywood property. That means the funders purchased only the development rights to the land.  Now, we could use the interest from the purchase to contract land management services from the Land Trust while the soil, water, mineral, and use rights still belong to us. It was an ideal partnership.  The Land Trust had also secured funding for protecting 290 acres on the west side of Laurel Curve. All the land needed to protect the Pumas and other wildlife and build the crossing was secured. 

Motivated by mitigation credits brokered by Natural Resources Secretary John Laird and Assemblymember Mark Stone, Caltrans organized to design and engineer the project at record speed. The Land Trust had never seen them move faster. This was truly miraculous. 

Caltrans designed an undercrossing for the animals that is wider and more welcoming than a tunnel. The roadway will become a bridge. And at $5.6 million, the project plan came in way under the original forecast of $12 million. Miracles abound!

The wildlife crossing is truly a multi-faceted and multi-partnered project. Again, the level of coordination and productivity is a miracle worth offering thanks to God for. Here are the organizations involved:

God answered our prayers in miraculous ways. The situation turned out better than we could have possibly planned. It was a demonstration of His faithfulness and His love for His creation. The best miracle is that Marywood will now stay undeveloped forever. The wildlife, plants, Redwood trees, and headwaters will be preserved and protected. The sale agreement allows us to build up to a maximum of ~10,000 sq. ft. on the property.  While we will continue holding retreats, meetings, and vacations, we are also considering constructing small hermitages that will be available for rent. These will allow individuals to enjoy the wild spaces at Marywood for prayer, meditation, contemplation, or quiet work. Many will be able to give thanks and appreciate the miracles God has done.