Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

A scenic Tuolumne County ranch that has starred in several famed Hollywood productions through the decades inched closer this week to preservation in perpetuity.

The 238-acre Ratto Ranch appeared on the silver screen's 1936 "Charge of the Light Brigade" starring Errol Flynn, the 1943 picture "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and 1952's "High Noon," each starring Gary Cooper, and several times in the 1970s and 1980s on Michael Landon's TV series "Little House on the Prairie" and "Highway to Heaven," among other productions.

Owner Alton McRae, 78, a Sonora High School alumnus who now lives in Mariposa, and his late wife, Janice Taylor, began about a decade ago to look for ways to keep the property a working ranch. McRae is now working in conjunction with the Tuolumne County Land Trust, a private nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve such lands through voluntary entry into conservation easement agreements.

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that administers grants for environmental and economic projects in the region, awarded the land trust a $19,650 grant late last week for appraisal and planning work related to the ranch project.

TCLT President Brian Kermeen said the award will also aid an application to the California Resources Agency for about $300,000 needed to complete the project with the help of the Trust for Public Land, a national organization based in San Francisco.

The state resources agency manages grant funds allocated to mitigate for loss of similar lands due to Caltrans highway improvement projects, Kermeen said.

The ranch proved versatile for film projects.

"No matter which way they shot, they didn't have to camouflage anything," McRae said.

In "High Noon," filmmakers shot the farmhouse from three different angles to make it appear as if it were three separate buildings in various scenes, he said.

In a Joaquin Murietta documentary, the rangeland stood in for locations in Tuolumne, Calaveras and San Benito counties, McRae said.

The weather gave a crew some trouble filming a pilot for TV series "The Young Riders" in 1989 though, he said.

It rained 16 inches that March, McRae recalled.

"When they picked it up for TV, they moved their production to Arizona," he laughed.

McRae has watched with some disgust as housing developments have sprouted up nearby.

"All over California, you've seen open land that has been cut up and basically destroyed by developers," he said.

McRae intends for the property to pass someday to his son, a Florida resident, and daughter, who lives in Mariposa.

McRae's brother, Ben, still runs about 75 to 100 head of cattle on the property.

Kermeen said this year's round of Sierra Nevada Conservancy grants focused on preservation of such working ranches.

The land relies not only on its film history and its agricultural present, but also on a long and rich past, as well as diverse flora and fauna.

Taylor's great-great-great-grandfather, Giovani Batista Ratto, an Italian immigrant, patented the ranch in 1874. The Ratto family lost the property and regained it in the early years. It served as part of a dairy as well as a vegetable farm that shipped produce over Sonora Pass to the once-booming town of Bodie.

The Rattos ran cattle from the ranch down to the town of Melones, now inundated by New Melones Reservoir. There is evidence of mining activity on the land that is still being researched. The ranch also serves as an emergency landing zone for distressed aircraft leaving or coming into Columbia Airport.

A biological assessment of the property counted 186 plant, 47 animal and 27 bird species, including several listed as threatened or "special species of concern," Kermeen noted. It includes portions of Table Mountain and Peppermint Creek.

Kermeen is hopeful a successful completion of the conservation easement at the famous ranch will lead to more interest and activity for the land trust.

"There are a lot of misconceptions out there we want to alleviate," he said. "It's not a taking. It's completely voluntary. It's not government coming in and preserving open space on people who don't want it."