Leland Stanford loved horses. They have been a part of the Stanford landscape dating from 1876, when he purchased his first 650 out of 8,000 acres. For decades Stanford University has continued that tradition. It has leased some of its valuable acreage for grazing and equestrian uses, offering the local horse-loving community opportunities to traverse trails, board their horses and use its land for pasturage.
But as open land becomes scarcer, Stanford's marriage to its horse-accommodating past has begun to falter. Faced with pressures for potential future development space and federal requirements to protect threatened and endangered species that inhabit its open spaces, the university is reducing the lease of at least one longtime equestrian facility. The leaseholder, Page Mill Pastures, must reduce by at least 75 percent the number of horses it runs on the land by the end of the year.
Page Mill Pastures has been a fixture on Stanford land for 30 years, offering boarding in paddocks and three pastures for mares, geldings and retired and injured horses. Before that, for many years it was Ramos Ranch. At one point there were as many as 150 horses. But under a revised lease, the business must reduce its herd from about 100 horses to 25. Page Mill's acreage is also being reduced from 800 acres to 118, Giselle Turchet, Page Mill's manager, confirmed on Wednesday.
Page Mill's drastic reduction is taking place for a couple of reasons. For one, it shares its home with federally endangered species. The facility sits on land near creeks that support the California red-legged frog and Western pond turtles. Stanford is required to protect those species under the Endangered Species Act.
Horse trails cross Matadero and Deer creeks, bringing erosion and excrement that may harm the small animals. The large animals could also trample the species, according to the university.
To address protection under federal law, Stanford developed a voluminous document, the Habitat Conservation Plan. The plan was approved in 2013 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, giving Stanford an "incidental take permit" for 50 years to develop some of the protected species' environmentally sensitive lands by setting some aside and enhancing others.
Jean McCown, university spokeswoman, said in an email that Stanford has been working with an agricultural consultant to assess horse and cattle pasture-management practices on its lands.
"One reason to do this evaluation is to avoid over-grazing that can result in detriment to grass lands. Stanford will be working with all of its agricultural tenants to implement recommendations for best pasture management and to make appropriate changes to ensure responsible environmental stewardship of these lands," she wrote.
Stanford has been working with Page Mill for more than three years to reach an agreement on a reduction in acreage and horses, and it is allowing the facility to continue keeping some horses and its classes on the property. The university will bring in seasonal grazing animals to reduce fire risk on the pastures that will no longer be grazed by the horses, McCown said.
Turchet said it's Stanford's land to do with what they want. She declined to comment further on the cutbacks, deferring to university officials.
But the move isn't sitting well with the equestrian community.
"Shame On You Stanford!" read the headline of the local publication "That Barn Life," which wrote about "The Great Migration" from Page Mill in its July 1 issue.
Many local equestrians have stabled and pastured their horses at Page Mill for years, including the publication's editor, Kwase Hjulstrom, who said she is one of the lucky few whose horse can remain at Page Mill.
Leaving the horse-boarding facility at 3450 Deer Creek Road means they are not only losing a close-by place to board their animals, but they are also losing a close-knit community, she and others said.
"I am extremely upset," said Sue Winslow, who recently moved her horses to Milpitas. "My horses lived at Page Mill for almost 20 years. There are so few places where you can have a horse on pasture land. ... It's kind of the end of an era."
Winslow said losing the pastures is a loss for the entire community. Families bring their children to see the horses and vans of seniors from retirement communities often stop to watch the animals placidly graze against the backdrop of hills.
She noted that many horse owners work in Palo Alto. They won't be able to drive an hour to see and care for their horses every day. There may be a few other local places to board animals, but most don't offer the accommodations of Page Mill and many are far more expensive than the $330 a month for pasture use and $695 for a paddock, she said.
For Marcy Rosenberg, the loss is "huge."
"The people were like family -- that was the hardest thing," she said of leaving.
Page Mill Pastures was also "paradise" for her two horses, and she and her husband, Bob, loved the trail connections that took them into Los Altos and to Westwind Barn, she said. After 13 years at Page Mill, she now travels to Milpitas to visit her horse.
Rosenberg recalled that before she and her husband moved their horses more than a month ago, they could feel a distinctive change in the air at Page Mill.
"These last months before we left, it's like somebody died," she said.
Some equestrians voiced concern that the university would develop the pastures, a claim that McCown said is false. The university "has no development plans for that property or outside its academic-growth boundary in Santa Clara County," she wrote.
Some in the equestrian community pointed out that the Habitat Conservation Plan does allow Stanford future development rights in some of the sensitive habitat areas outside of buffer zones and set-asides. If not building today, the university could still develop the pastures in the future, they said.
By Aug. 31, Page Mill must remove the geldings from the upper part of their pasture; all of the lower stalls and structures, tack, storage and sheds along the creeks; and all structures in the pastures at Coyote Hill, also called "Flat Pasture," according to a letter Page Mill sent to clients regarding the changes, Hjulstrom said.
By Dec. 31, all horses on the gelding pastures must be removed, and all horses and structures on Old Page Mill Road must be taken out.
The Pastures will be allowed to keep its main parking lot, mares' catch pen, riding-and-lesson program and upper stalls and arenas and the mares' pasture.