The Land Is Her Legacy: Sagehorn-Russell Ranch in Northern California


A granite slab beside Memorial Rock honors Herman E. and Alberline W. Sagehorn, who bought this Mendocino County ranch in 1948:

Pioneers who cherished the land and each other.

Memorial Rock has always been a sacred landmark. The First People of the land inscribed its face with markings of lost meaning. The pioneer Sagehorns chose this as their final resting place.

Marilyn with Colter and Cleo Holleman

“From birth to death,” third-generation rancher Marilyn Russell says. She looks past her parents’ grave to the hills and mountains of home. From the Native Americans who lived here to her pioneer ancestors, the Sagehorn-Russell Ranch has a rich history. It is because of the stewardship choices Marilyn has made that the ranch has a future.

Marilyn had a hardscrabble upbringing. She spent her childhood on horseback, her father’s right-hand man on the ranch. After high school, she traveled up the redwood coast to UC Berkeley and earned a degree in zoology. The education helps her better understand the land’s natural resources. Her childhood taught her what the land can provide, and her duty to it.

“I knew this ranch was my heritage, something I needed to be responsible for,” Marilyn says. “When I was 16, I was riding with my favorite uncle Earnest and I thought, ‘He’s a wise person.’ So I asked him, ‘What am I gonna do with the ranch?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’”

The question plagued her even as she built her life and career in Livermore. Marilyn’s parents sacrificed comforts to afford a college education for their only daughter. “Love at first sight” with Jerry Russell, her husband of over 50 years, upended her plans of becoming a doctor, but Marilyn says she is grateful for her 30 years teaching biology at Livermore High School. With no children of her own, Marilyn built rewarding relationships with students she calls her “gift sons and daughters”—and her career allowed her to fulfill her dream of entering the medical field by becoming a “doctor” of a different sort.

She explains with a quote from famous conservationist Aldo Leopold:

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds…An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

Aldo Leopold
Colter Holleman with his handmade reata

In 1994, the Holleman family moved onto the ranch. It was a turning point. Caretaker Paul Holleman and his son Colter brought many improvements to the ranch, including an innovative water system. The Hollemans honor the old Californio style, using horses and dogs for all ranch work. Marilyn and Jerry plan to leave the Sagehorn-Russell Ranch to Colter, his wife Renee, and their children in their estate plan.

As both a rancher and a conservationist, Marilyn has found peace of mind in her stewardship decisions. In donating the ranch’s conservation easement to the California Rangeland Trust, and allowing her land to be a primary research center in the UC Berkeley Eel River Critical Zone Observatory project, Marilyn and Jerry are creating a unique legacy.

“As a river-stream ecologist, I’m so grateful for the chance to see firsthand the way the careful ranching stewardship practiced by Marilyn, her father, and her ranch manager Paul has protected and sustained their land,” says Mary E. Power, one of the researchers in the UC Berkeley project on the Sagehorn-Russell Ranch. “Conservationists and academic ecologists are appreciating, more and more, that the deep love and understanding of committed ranchers for their land will be crucial in sustaining nature and landscapes over much of California.”

Marilyn with ranch manager Paul Holleman

As Marilyn watches the young Hollemans play with their two young boys, Cleo and Colter, she recalls the dying words of Old Chief Joseph to his son in 1871:

“Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home… My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”

Chief Joseph

The great chief’s words resonate with Marilyn in the choices she has made for the long-term care of her ranch. She has finally found an answer to the question she asked her uncle at 16. Marilyn’s dream of protecting the land entrusted to her is now a permanent reality.

This post in a modified form was originally written for the California Rangeland Trust.

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