Conservation groups announced Friday they had finalized their purchase of the Royal Gorge ski area after raising more than $11 million to buy the Donner Summit property, which had been proposed for development.
Following the close of escrow late Thursday, the cross-country ski resort's 3,000 acres of forests, meadows and mountain peaks will be preserved for public use by new owners the Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land.
The nearby Sugar Bowl ski resort will manage the cross-country area, while new public access will be granted via hiking trails and other amenities.
"We're going to take down the no trespassing signs and embark on the fun and rewarding process of figuring out where the trails will go," said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, a group that helped raise funds and organized opposition to the development proposal.
The acquisition of Royal Gorge, with its stunning natural beauty and storied history, was regarded as a top priority among conservationists.
Named for the ill-fated Donner Party of emigrants, the summit has been a crossing point for American Indians, wagon trains, railroads and motorists on Interstate 80.
Royal Gorge opened in 1971 and introduced downhill-style ski amenities to cross-country skiers. It billed itself as the largest cross-country ski resort in North America.
In 2005, Bay Area developers bought the property for a reported $35 million from Royal Gorge co-founder John Slouber. The developers, Kirk Syme and cousins Todd and Mark Foster, proposed building 950 condos and single-family houses on the summit.
Their plan raised a howl of protest from environmentalists and local residents, including homeowners at Serene Lakes, a vacation spot surrounded by Royal Gorge.
The plan ultimately fizzled. The developers defaulted on a $16.7 million loan from Armed Forces Bank in June 2011, and a judge placed the property in receivership.
Last summer, the receiver, Douglas Wilson Cos. of San Diego, agreed to sell the 3,000 privately held acres of the ski resort to the Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land, both part of the Northern Sierra Partnership.
The purchase price was $11.25 million, and the groups had until close of escrow on Thursday to raise the money.
The Nature Conservancy and Sierra Watch aided the fundraising effort. So did more than 1,000 individuals who donated to the five-month campaign. Serene Lakes and Sugar Bowl residents contributed about $7 million to the effort, Mooers said.
Their homes were "literally surrounded by the proposed development, so they had a keen understanding of what was at stake and became a huge part of the solution," he said.
State and federal dollars made up much of the rest, he said. The groups are trying to raise about $4 million more to pay for maintenance and improvements.
The Royal Gorge purchase was the most prominent of a series of acquisitions made by land trusts in the Sierra Nevada in recent years. Many were bought at bargain prices during the recession and its aftermath.
Mooers said he believes buying a large piece of Donner Summit for what some luxury homes cost in Lake Tahoe or the Bay Area will be seen as a remarkable accomplishment.
"We're going to look back even five years from now," he said, "and be amazed by what we got."