Feb 072024

The Gifts of Slow Walking

By Tracy Salcedo
Originally published in Kenwood Press

I was walking so slowly I felt tipsy.

But that was the point. Not the tipsy part, the slow part. As part of my California Naturalist training, I was being introduced to forest bathing, which invites you to walk so slowly that you notice things you might otherwise whiz past. Embracing the invitation I wobbled down the nature trail, drunk on spiderwebs, birdcall, and moss.

I’ve always considered myself a slow walker, but it turns out I’m not. I’m a stop-and-go walker. Writing hiking guides requires moving along a trail in fits and starts, pausing at junctions and overlooks to take notes, then whizzing to the next waypoint. I stop to make notes because otherwise … well, tipsy.

So yes, I’m slow, but only because it takes me a long time to write notes. Stop-and-go walking is a job. Slow walking is a gift.

Slow walking at Sugarloaf

The Cal Nat training I’ve just completed required reading and attending lectures by experts in the fields of geology, hydrology, biology, and more. It also involved slow walks to places in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park where that geology, hydrology, biology, and more could be witnessed in the wild. The program has long been a goal of mine — I know little bits about the state’s natural wonders and this was my chance to take a deeper dive.

On a hillock underlain by serpentine, my fellow aspiring naturalists and I spread across the slope and moved slowly, looking for new things to identify using the iNaturalist program: insects, snakes (or not), lichens, leather oak. On top we gathered in the broiling sun and talked about how plate tectonics are like pizza, and how fire is both good and bad. Then we head down to the creek to forest bathe.

I’ll admit to approaching forest bathing with skepticism. If bathing equals immersion, my entire career as a professional walker in the woods has been an extended soak. But I was missing something important: intention. Forest bathing is not simple immersion; it too is a deep dive.

We began by a mandala — a circle of leaves, flowers, acorns, and stones — where I offered gratitude to my family. We sipped tea. Then we walked slowly up the trail carrying our gratitude and intentions to pay attention, and then down to the creek, where we were invited to hold an open hand just above the water to feel the tension there.

Unfortunately, I missed out on this experience. I have no depth perception — never have — so I plunged my flat hand straight into the water, truly bathing. I stifled laughter because I knew the others were getting this thing right and I didn’t want to distract them. Acting natural, I selected a stone from the creek bed like that’s what I’d intended, and cradled it my palm as we gathered round to share our experiences. I made myself a promise to feel the surface tension of water some other time, in private.

On another day in Sugarloaf, near the headwaters of Sonoma Creek, we settled onto a bridge and pulled out our notebooks. While we wrote and drew in our nature journals, the weather began a slow turn, blowing open a storm door. The class carried on up the trail but I had an appointment; this was my turnaround.

I was packing my bag when the yogis arrived. “Join us,” the leader invited, and there on the bridge she anointed my wrists with a scent that blossomed on my skin like the smell of home: bay, wild rose, sage. I stretched with the yogis for a short time, breathing into the lake of healing I carry in my core. I only had time, though, to stretch half my body before I had to move on — and I know enough about yoga to know I was out of balance. But these days I feel chronically out of balance so I slow-walked back to my car, careful not to be tipsy when I turned my face to the gathering wind.

Slow walking on Sonoma Mountain

On the other side of the valley on another day, a certified Cal Naturalist led a crew of curious hikers around the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) campus on a guided walk. We were exploring the cultivated forest that thrives among the decaying buildings: cypresses, redwoods, catalpas, oaks, magnolias thick with fruit. It’s a mast year for magnolias and some of the oaks, and they have produced in abundance for reasons humans have yet to suss out completely.

I was acting as sweep. What’s a sweep, you ask? It’s the person at the back of the pack of a guided hike who makes sure no one gets left behind. It turns out some folks walk slower than others, and some folks just forget to walk at all, diverted by their devices or a friend they meet along the trail. We walked slowly not just because of all there was to see, but also for the stories; we were a group who knew the SDC’s history well, and who were curious, and who gathered berries to munch and pebbles to toss from the bridge as we meandered.

Back at the SDC on another day, this time sweeping a literary bird walk in the open space above the campus, I reconnoitered with the leader under a dripping cypress. Our announcement for this hike noted heavy rain would cancel, but the six of us who’d gathered for the hike decided heavy rain be damned.

Our guide began with a poem and advice: We must walk quietly if we want to spot birds. In the same way telling someone that a person is blind makes that someone yell at the blind person, walking quietly also means walking slowly. We saw a whole mess of birds. A flock of bushtits called out warnings — “Head’s up!”, “Take cover!” — when a Cooper’s hawk flew overhead, because the big bird eats the little birds. Lesser goldfinches, a Hutton’s vireo, ruby-crowned kinglets, and dozens more braved the weather. The wet adobe soil became snot-slick and stuck to our boots, forcing us to walk even more slowly. We paused in downpours to read poems and peer into bushes. By the time we reached Fern Lake, we were drenched.

But no matter. On the way down we were all a little tipsy, intoxicated by mist, birdcall, and moss, the gifts of slow walking.

Feb 052024

The promise kept: SDC open space becomes state parkland 

By Tracy Salcedo
Originally published in Kenwood Press, January 15, 2024

It’s been a long time coming, but the promise has been kept. The exquisite natural landscapes surrounding the core campus of the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) are now formally protected as public parkland.

The transfer of jurisdiction to California State Parks of 650 acres straddling Arnold Drive in Glen Ellen was announced on Jan. 4 and was cause for celebration for the many public entities and local residents who have worked for nearly a decade to ensure the scenic lands were protected. The acreage encompasses the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, a “critical regional wildlife linkage connecting the Marin Coast to Blue Ridge and Lake Berryessa”; spectacular oak woodlands, meadowlands, wetlands, and redwood groves; and a popular but unofficial trail network. It represents the “largest addition to state park lands in Sonoma County since 2010,” according to a State Parks press release.

It also fulfills a mandate included in the legislation overseeing transformation of the historic site, which was home to people with developmental disabilities for almost 130 years. Those residents, along with their caretakers and neighbors, cherished the wildness of the SDC’s surroundings, a legacy now preserved for posterity.

The new state parkland falls under the umbrella of Jack London State Historic Park, bringing its total acreage to more than 2,200 acres, and for the time being will be managed by State Parks rangers and administrators.

Appreciation, excitement, and relief
Natural landscapes surrounding the core campus of the former SDC are formally protected as public parkland. Photo by Paul Goguen

Elected officials, nonprofit environmental organizations, community activists — everyone commenting on the transfer — were excited and relieved to have the deal done.

“California State Parks looks forward to stewarding this property, working through the planning process with the public, and advancing public outdoor access to more Californians,” said California State Parks Director Armando Quintero in the press release; and Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot hitched the new parkland to California’s 30×30 Initiative: “Expanding the state park in this way is one more creative step toward meeting our 30×30 commitment to conserve 30 percent of our lands across California by 2030.”

“We made a promise to the community at the beginning of the transition process that the vast majority of [SDC] land would be protected forever,” State Senator Mike Mc-Guire said in the release. “80 percent of the former SDC campus will now be protected forever and it’s a big win for the Valley and our County.”

“This is a huge win for preserving and stewarding this incredible open space, and it’s a milestone Senator McGuire and I have been working to make a reality for years,” said Senator Bill Dodd. Senator Dodd’s chief of staff, Ezrah Chaaban, as well as other legislative aides, were integral to the transfer’s execution.

“We deeply appreciate the leadership State Parks took in acquiring these lands — in acquiring open space that belongs to all of us,” said Matt Leffert, executive director of Jack London Park Partners (JLPP). The nonprofit JLPP runs Jack London State Historic Park in partnership with State Parks and is expected to help manage the new parkland in the future.

According to John McCaull, the Sonoma Land Trust [SLT] has been working toward “two interdependent outcomes” since 2014, when it launched its Transform SDC initiative. The first goal was to “complete transfer to state or county park agencies of high-value open space and wildlife corridor lands on the SDC property outside of the core campus … this announcement achieves our first outcome, and the state has fulfilled its commitment.” Achieving the second goal — maintaining the permeability of the wildlife corridor within the developed campus — is an ongoing endeavor.

“Sonoma Ecology Center (SEC) is excited and gratified that our community and our leaders have succeeded in doing something extremely important for our Valley,” said Richard Dale, SEC’s executive director. “We’ve worked together for decades to assure that the critical natural resources on the former SDC campus, particularly the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, are understood and protected. This is a milestone, a major accomplishment. It is something that future Sonoma Valley residents and visitors will experience the benefits of, and the natural world will be better because of.”

Alice Horowitz, community activist from Glen Ellen and curator of Eldridge for All, said the transfer “is a huge win for our environment and certainly something to celebrate. A big ‘thank you’ to all who have advocated for permanent protection of these environmentally sensitive acres for so many years.”

“Good news for open space!” wrote Sonoma’s Teri Shore on behalf of the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter. “It’s a big win for statewide conservation.”

What comes next?

Over the next few years, the general plan for Jack London State Historic Park, including the new parklands, will be revised and then implemented. In the interim, “the public will be able to continue to access the lands as they have been doing under existing conditions,” said Matthew Allen, deputy district superintendent for State Parks’ Bay Area District.

Trail users on the west side are now “crossing boundaries that no longer exist” between SDC property and state park property, JLPP’s Leffert observed. “State Parks already has a presence on the former SDC lands,” he added. “We have a very strong partnership with State Parks and are in constant communication about managing recreational use of these lands.”

An interim operations plan will be developed over the next few months, Allen said, and a web page will be created and updated “with information regarding park rules, policies [and] maps.”

State Park rangers are already patrolling the new parkland. “They are there to educate the public about permitted uses and deter and/or enforce unlawful behavior (like swimming in the reservoirs), as well as provide for public safety,” Allen said.

Vegetation management activities focused on reducing wildfire risks are already underway along Orchard Road and other routes in the SDC open space. Trail users can also expect the installation of informational, interpretive, and wayfinding signage, portable restrooms, and trash cans in the park.

The general planning process will include community and stakeholder engagement, tribal consultation, creation of management units, and an environmental impact report. “State Parks will keep the public apprised of public engagement opportunities,” the press release states.

Community imput would be integral to planning for the new addition, Leffert said. Though JLPP “won’t have a formal role in co-managing with State Parks” until the general plan revision is complete and a management agreement is in place, “we will be engaging the community in the process and guaranteeing all voices are heard.”

Sonoma Land Trust (SLT) also looks forward to participating in the general planning process. “There is work to be done right away to create trail maps, provide a safer and more environmentally sustainable visitor experience, improve fire safety, and better understand wildlife use and movement across the property during this interim period,” McCaull said. SLT has secured $560,000 from the Community Foundation of Sonoma County (Sonoma Valley Fund) “to help pay for trail maps, signage, and other improvements;” work with State Parks to study wildlife movement; and work with CalFire, through the Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative, “to improve habitat and fire safety conditions.”

Questions and concerns remain

As anyone who’s been following the transition of the SDC knows, a definitive map delineating the boundaries of the core campus and the open space has never been publicly available. But the property has long been divided in two, with about 750 acres deemed open space and the core campus encompassing 180 acres. The campus is in the process of being sold to a developer who plans to build 930 dwellings, a resort hotel, and 410,000 square feet of commercial space on the site.

When the open space transfer of 650 acres was announced, the first question that came to many minds was, “What about the other 100 acres?”

The formal response from State Parks: “Of the approximately 750 acres of open space connected to Jack London, roughly 650 acres — or close to percent — are being transferred to State Parks in this transaction. Roughly 50 acres may go to CalFire in the future in support of their mission and roughly 50 acres of open space/buffer land will temporarily remain under Department of General Services ownership. These buffer lands include landscape, fire buffer, and wildlife corridor area surrounding and adjoining the SDC core campus. State Parks will manage/operate all 750 acres as ownership of the remaining acres is finalized.”

In other correspondence with the Kenwood Press, Allen noted that formal legal descriptions “are still being worked through” and that “there will be a different but accurate number down the road.”

The transfer does not include the reservoirs — Fern Lake and Lake Suttonfield — which Allen said would be reserved for the development. This raised concerns for a number of advocates, including Dale, who wants to “assure water resources on the site benefit the public trust as intended.”

The 50-acre parcel set aside for CalFire, located in the southeast corner of the property along Sonoma Highway, also raised eyebrows, as the site impinges on the wildlife corridor.

Finally, the impacts of intensively redeveloping the campus, now nestled in parkland, remain a concern.

“Developer Keith Rogal’s plans to build out the SDC core campus to the tune of 930 housing units, a fourstory hotel, a four-story ‘innovation center,’ 8,000 square feet of nonresidential construction, and 3,060 parking spaces will undoubtedly inflict irreparable harm, not only on the surrounding community, but on the newly protected acres as well,” said Horowitz.

“We know there is a long and complicated road ahead for the campus development,” McCaull said.

“But this is a moment to celebrate,” the one-time Glen Ellen resident reiterated, and the ecology center’s Dale agreed.

“The main feature of this remarkable news is that most of the open space lands of the former SDC campus are going to be permanently protected, managed for the benefit of people and ecosystems, now and into the future. That’s a cause for celebration.”

Jan 062024

The Urbanization of Sonoma Mountain

By Will Shonbrun

A sailor on horseback

“I ride over my beautiful ranch. Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive. I am filled with dreams and mysteries.” —John Barleycorn by Jack London, 1913

In 1905, Jack London, acclaimed author, world traveler, foreign correspondent, farmer, socialist, humanist, and courageous enjoyer of life, found the place that spoke to him on the side of Sonoma Mountain in what was known as the Valley of the Moon. He knew at first sight it was where he would set his roots and live his days with his beloved wife and companion, Charmian, farming and writing and thinking about the things that interested him. 

London didn’t buy what he and Charmian named Beauty Ranch to amass fortune, but to work the land and farm the soil using practices we now call sustainable agriculture by using nature’s innate elements for replenishing and replicating the natural growing cycles. His approach to stewarding the land was built on respect for its vital needs and the bounty it gifted. In this he mirrored and honored the Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the natural world over the thousands of years they’d lived there.

That’s all about to change.

Brief backstory

Most readers, especially residents of Sonoma Valley, know the backstory of the demise of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), officially closed in 2018. The wrap-up comes down to this: The buyer intends to build about 1,000 houses, a 120-room hotel/resort, and provide commercial space for all the businesses needed to serve thousands of new residents and visitors on the 180-acre “core campus.” This plan would create a new town in the midst of a rural and wildlife-friendly region in the heart of Sonoma Valley. 

Urban sprawl on steroids

The state of California and Sonoma County are abandoning years of land-use decisions regarding urban infill and urban growth, decisions intended to prevent sprawl into greenbelts and open space. In so doing, both the state and county are acting contrary to their stated and pledged environmental goals to address the increasing impacts of global warming.

Which begs the question, why is public land, paid for with public money, able to be privatized and commodified without public consent? 

Since 2015, buoyed by persistent state and county promises to incorporate the community’s vision in the outcome at SDC, thousands of Sonoma Valley citizens diligently participated in the planning process to consider how and by whom the land should be used. But in the end, the state’s assurances turned out to be little more than empty words.

Development in rural areas is being driven by a state-imposed mandate to address what is labeled a “housing crisis.” In spite of the fact that the “crisis” is for affordable housing, not market-rate housing, the state-selected developer, Grupe/Rogal, has stated that it does not intend to build more than 10–15% affordable housing. The rest will be out of reach for most Sonoma County citizens. 

To make matters worse, in addition to the proposed housing and commercial development at SDC are plans to develop more than 60 acres on the nearby Hanna Center property for, as you might have guessed, housing, plus a hotel and businesses. How many people and their daily vehicle miles traveled this additional development on rural land adds up to can only be guessed. 

This is an environmental issue

In my view, the disposition of the former SDC land is not a housing issue, or a sell the land and make it profitable for state and county issue. It’s matter of preserving and protecting an ancient, biologically diverse, self-sustaining ecosystem. It has intrinsic value as habitat as well as for the enjoyment and knowledge it bestows on our human citizens. This ecosystem, with a wildlife corridor running through it, cannot remain viable side by side with the urban development being planned next door.

Humans are not entitled to live anywhere and everywhere. Just as we need to honor and preserve the remaining wilderness areas, we must recognize the importance of rural landscapes and green buffer zones so that urban regions have access and connection to the natural world. We have much to learn and time is surely running out.  

Building a new town in the heart of Sonoma Valley at the base of Sonoma Mountain threatens to destroy our rural wildlands and wildlife. Taking the example of the other places, it may start small, but will not stay so. We have seen this pattern played out here in Sonoma County and elsewhere in our state.

Back to Jack

Writing about his property next to SDC in 1905, London said, “There are 130 acres in the place, and they are 130 acres of the most beautiful, primitive land to be found in California. There are great redwoods on it, some of them thousands of years old … in fact, the redwoods are as fine and magnificent as any to be found anywhere outside the tourist groves. Also, there are great firs, tanbark oaks, maples, live-oaks, white-oaks, black-oaks, madrone and manzanita galore. There are canyons, several streams of water, many springs … I have been riding all over these hills, looking for just such a place, and I must say that I have never seen anything like it.”

Jack London knew what he was talking about, and he knew when he saw it that it was a treasure to protect and preserve. He left it as a legacy for us and all others who would understand its innate value. If we let the SDC go on the auction bloc for a quick profit for government functionaries and the business merchants who influence them, we will have sold another of nature’s gifts for a handful of silver.

Will Shonbrun is a Sonoma Valley resident and community activist.

Nov 082023

Walks and Talks on Sonoma Mountain

In October SMP hosted two walks in the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), the beloved and beleaguered institution in Glen Ellen that’s slated to be sold to a developer whose current plans call for leveling much of what’s beautiful, historic, and unusual on the campus.

The first event, a reprise of SMP’s popular “History, Horticulture, and Future of the SDC” hike, was led by California Naturalist Carolyn Greene and featured an impromptu presentation by photographer Christian Pease, a former SDC employee and a leading member of the Eldridge Cemetery Memorial Committee. At the newly completed cemetery memorial, which overlooks the unmarked graves of nearly 2,000 SDC residents, Pease described the memorial’s components, the forgotten history that prompted its creation, and the political and administrative process that got the project done. The names of everyone buried in the cemetery have been etched in granite slabs on the ADA-accessible viewing platform, which can be reached via a short walk uphill from the campus via Orchard Road.

The second hike, “Fall Birds and Migratory Words on Sonoma Mountain,” was led by author, scientist, and avid bird-watcher Rebecca Lawton, who guided a half-dozen hardy participants through intermittent downpours to secret spots on the campus and along the trail to Fern Lake where the birds — in surprising numbers and variety — were hanging out. Among the species seen or heard were a tree-full of bushtits yelling “head’s up” as a Cooper’s hawk swooped overhead, a couple of ruby-crowned kinglets, more than a dozen dark-eyed juncos and lesser goldfinches, a few northern flickers, a Hutton’s vireo, a hermit thrush … two dozen species and seventy-four birds in all. Lawton also shared poetry with the soggy but happy participants, including a work by our national poet laureate Ada Limón, who was raised in Glen Ellen. You can read Lawton’s SDC-inspired poem, “The Night the County Supervisors Met to Sell the Mountain,” here.

A new slate of guided walks on the SDC and elsewhere on Sonoma Mountain is currently in the works. We’re hopeful these two wonderful guides will be back to lead again, and that they will be joined colleagues who can share their special connections to the mountain with fellow mountain lovers.

~ Tracy Salcedo, SMP vice chair and “sweep”

Participants at the memorial platform at Sonoma Developmental Center.
Participants at the memorial platform at Sonoma Developmental Center.
Nov 082023

The Night the County Supervisors Met
to Sell the Mountain

by Rebecca Lawton

I arrive late to a dream where ushers fold arms across their chests at theater doors. A man,
linebacker big, waves a county pass, rushes by the box office, parts the ushers like the Red Sea.

You’re too late, says an office clerk, though he can sell me tickets to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
It’s the one where Charlie finds the last real tree on the lot. He gets back to town with his dying
fir or spruce, only to be mocked by children with black holes for mouths.

Of course Charlie is depressed.

I shake off the dream and the clerk’s hungry eyes. Wide awake, I follow the mountain’s middle
path, empty of hikers and cyclists and dogs, who are all at the real-life meeting. I climb on, as
chickadees buzz in oak branches. Jays scold. Red-tailed hawks scream.

The meeting will go past midnight. Citizens will pour out their hearts, some to keep the mountain
wild, some to sell it and clear forests and fields for a town. Everyone’s dogs will grin with hope.
The supes will handshake folks on both sides of the room, pat poodles and retrievers alike.

Meanwhile I will walk the wooded mountain that saved my life twenty years ago.

Back then, nursing a bruised heart not far from here, I raised my daughter alone. I rose at dawn
to work long days in the woods, gauged the mountain’s creeks and springs, stood knee-deep with staff and stopwatch in chilly flow. Owls called, resting in shadows. Muddy deer trails bore lion prints the size of tea-plates, mixed with hieroglyphic scrawls of turkey and heron.

Ducks flew up from Mexico to winter here. Gulls strayed in from the coast. One hot day, a baby
vulture hid in a stump while raucous woodpeckers relayed along a shaded creek. Wild lilies, shell
fungi, orchids no bigger than dandelions pushed up through leaf litter. I took my girl to see them.

It was all there. It is up there still, though the meeting went the way such meetings go.

My friends say they’ll chain themselves naked to trees and rocks when the backhoes come, when the supes sell the mountain to a high bidder, as they’ll do. Like that clerk, they’ve got to hawk it, get tickets moving for a show we’ve all seen many times, about a boy who longs for nothing more than a full and living tree.

Sonoma Mountain Aerial view at SDC

Becca Lawton
First published in Deep Wild Journal
Winter 2022-2023

Sep 072023

The Three Watersheds of Sonoma Mountain.

A watershed is an area of land that catches and drains precipitation to a common body of water such as a river, lake, or ocean. Every place where water collects has its own watershed. No matter where you live, you live in a watershed.

“I think of watersheds as living lifeboats from ridge to river, from summit to sea, from stem to stern.”

Brock Dolman

The springs and creeks of Sonoma Mountain feed into three different local watersheds: the Petaluma River, Sonoma Creek, and Laguna de Santa Rosa. 

Petaluma River Watershed

Petaluma River Watershed is the smallest of Sonoma Mountain’s three watersheds. Sonoma Mountain, at 2,295 feet, is the highest point in the watershed, which is located in southern Sonoma County and a portion of northeastern Marin County, with Petaluma at its center.

The headwaters and ephemeral tributaries of Sonoma Mountain’s southwest slopes are the major source of water for the Petaluma River’s 146 square-mile basin, which run approximately 19 miles long and 13 miles wide. 

The Petaluma River’s tributaries include Lichau Creek, Lynch Creek, Washington Creek, and Adobe Creek. Adobe Creek’s headwaters at the Lafferty Ranch were once the major source of water for Petaluma.

The Petaluma watershed is fifty-six percent mountainous or hilly upland areas, which also includes the southern slopes of Mecham Hill, the eastern slopes of Weigand’s Hill and Mt. Burdell. Thirty-three percent is the valley. The lower 11% of the watershed are salt marshes, which include the lower 12 miles of the Petaluma River and the Petaluma Marsh – the largest remaining salt marsh in San Pablo Bay. The marsh covers 5,000 acres and is surrounded by approximately 7,000 acres of reclaimed wetlands. The Petaluma River watershed empties into the northwest portion of San Pablo Bay.

Petaluma River is a slough, and it rises and falls with the tides. 

The Petaluma River Watershed hosts several federally endangered fauna and animals including the salt marsh harvest mouse, the North American River Otter, and Ridgway’s Rail.

Wild steelhead spawn and grow-up in the Petaluma River watershed are wild. Chinook salmon are seen in the main stem of the Petaluma River the turning basin, near the Lynch Creek confluence.

The headwaters and tributaries of Petaluma River begin on the steep southwest slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The confluence of Willow Brook, Liberty Creek, and Weigand’s Creek form the headwaters of the Petaluma Watershed just upstream of Rainsville Road and Stony Point Road. The Petaluma River itself flows across the Denman Flat area and through the City of Petaluma. Tidal influence extends upstream of the confluence with Lynch Creek (beyond the railroad crossing).

Sonoma Creek Watershed

The first trickle of Sonoma Creek begins northeast of Kenwood in the rugged hills of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. It travels west, then curves to the south, converging with tributaries from the western slopes of the Mayacamas and the eastern slopes of Sonoma Mountain. At the northwestern edge of the watershed are Sonoma Mountain Vernal Pools and Yulupa Creek.

Sonoma Mountain’s principal contributions to Sonoma Creek include Felder Creek, Carriger Creek, Dowdell Creek, Mill Creek, Ashbury Creek, and Graham Creek. Graham Creek runs through the upper regions of Jack London State Park and was historically called Wild Water Creek, a name used in the time of author Jack London. The creek inspired some of his work, including Valley of the Moon

Tributaries to Sonoma Creek Watershed from the Mayacamas include Calabazas Creek, Bear Creek, and Schell Creek.

The watershed covers approximately 170 square miles and Sonoma Creek itself flows 33 miles from its headwaters on the west side of the Mayacamas Mountains to the Napa-Sonoma Marsh in north San Pablo Bay. It includes the City of Sonoma, Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Boyes Hot Springs, and Schellville, and harbors a diverse range of habitats from redwood/fir forests to chaparral, oak woodland, and wetlands. 

The watershed provides habitat for several native threatened or endangered species of concern, including steelhead trout, Chinook salmon, and California freshwater shrimp. Beavers have also recolonized Sonoma Creek after having been missing for over a century and are currently located in both Sonoma and Glen Ellen. A “keystone species,” the beaver has created habitat that has, in turn, led to the return of the river otter.

Tolay Creek: 

The Tolay Creek watershed is generally listed as part of the Sonoma Creek watershed, though it never meets with Sonoma Creek. Technically, it is a small watershed of its own. Located south of Sonoma Mountain, between the Petaluma River and Sonoma Creek Watersheds, the 12-mile-long creek originates near Stage Gulch Road, feeds Tolay Lake, then flows south to eventually empty into the Napa-Sonoma Marsh.

Laguna de Santa Rosa Watershed

The Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed is the largest of Sonoma Mountain’s three watersheds. The 254-square-mile basin encompasses most of the Santa Rosa Plain and drains into the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a 22-mile wetland complex that extends from Cotati to the Russian River at Forestville. Sonoma Mountain’s major tributaries include Copeland Creek, which springs from Fairfield Osborn Preserve; Crane Creek, which begins east of Crane Creek Regional Park; and Matanzas Creek, its headwaters flowing through North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park. Other major tributaries to the laguna include Mark West Creek, Blucher Creek, Windsor Creek, and Santa Rosa Creek. 

Though the watershed makes up only 16% of Sonoma County’s land mass, it is home to over half the county’s population, containing all or part of Windsor, Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Sebastopol, and Forestville.

The Laguna de Santa Rosa is an ecological system covering more than 30,000 acres and comprised of a mosaic of creeks, open water, perennial marshes, seasonal wetlands, riparian forests, oak woodlands, and grasslands. It lies on the Pacific Flyway, an important global bird migration route, and is home to a wide variety of life: more than 200 species of birds, endangered salmon, steelhead, mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, mink, badger, and river otter. It includes rare vernal pool areas and critical habitat designated for the endangered California Tiger Salamander.

The Laguna de Santa Rosa also serves as a holding basin during our wet season and as an overflow area when the Russian River floods. It is the largest tributary to the Russian River, which originates near Willits in Mendocino County and runs 115 miles to the Pacific Ocean at Jenner. 

Jul 032023

Evil in the Hills: The Infidelity of Copeland Creek.

by John Sheehy

Frank Burton, who settled at the northwestern foot of Sonoma Mountain in the 1850s, claimed that the trout in nearby Copeland Creek ran so thick he could reach in and catch them by hand. Copeland Creek’s abundance of fish and year-round fresh water made it a valuable resource for Yankee pioneers like Burton, but the creek also had a checkered reputation for infidelity. In stormy conditions, Copeland Creek was known to jump watersheds, venturing from its usual streambed in the Russian River watershed to the nearby Petaluma River watershed, where it contributed to the periodic flooding of Petaluma.

Calls for imposing flood control on the wayward creek began over a century ago with the Petaluma Courier’s plea to “remedy the evils in the hills.” Those calls were raised again in the winter of 2018, after Copeland Creek jumped its banks along Lichau Road in Penngrove, spilling into an already-flooded Petaluma. As in the past, they were met with concerns over regulations, private property rights, and questions about where the money would come from.

Copeland Creek originates from Elphic Spring near the summit of Sonoma Mountain, naturally flowing onto the Santa Rosa Plain at the southern edge of the Russian River watershed. While winter storms annually drop an average 23 inches of rain on the plain, the top of Sonoma Mountain, its 2,464-foot elevation literally scraping the rain from passing storm clouds, averages 50 inches.

Prior to the 1870s, rainwater flowed down Copeland Creek’s bed of basaltic armor and fanned out into a large seasonal lake across parts of current day Cotati and Rohnert Park, providing a habitat for egrets, herons, ducks, amphibians, and trout.

The increasing development of farms on the plain in the 1870s led to a large-scale draining of  Copeland Creek’s seasonal wetlands. To do so, a nine-mile channel was constructed to connect the creek with the main stem of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, ultimately feeding the creek into the Russian River. 

But the collection of sediment and storm debris that built up during the winter hindered the channel’s flood control function, contributing to Copeland Creek’s inclination to jump into the nearby Petaluma watershed, where it pushed debris and sediment to the Petaluma River, impeding riverboat navigation and exasperating flood conditions in Petaluma. The channeling also appears to have brought about a steep decline of trout in the creek.

In 1872, Copeland Creek became a primary water source for Petaluma, along with two other year-round creeks that flowed down Sonoma Mountain’s west slope, Adobe Creek and Lynch Creek. A diversionary dam was built midway up Copeland Creek that piped roughly half of the creek’s stream flow to Petaluma reservoirs. Even so, come rainy winter seasons, Copeland Creek failed to change its evil ways. State engineer reports in 1896 and 1902 called for remedies for shoring up its banks, but ranch owners responded by threatening the city of Petaluma with trespassing lawsuits. 

In 1914, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers recommended the construction of a restraining wall on the creek, but the Cotati Land Company, a large landholder in the southern Santa Rosa Plain, sued Petaluma, arguing that such a wall would result in flooding their farmland. Heavy rainfalls in the late 1920s brought repeated flooding to the chicken ranchers of both Petaluma and Cotati. Citizen petitions for flood control were met with a deaf ear by the Petaluma City Council.

In 2021, the City of Rohnert Park was awarded a $6 million FEMA grant toward the construction of the detention basin for Copeland Creek to help mitigate flood problems, with matching funds coming from the city’s development fees.[1] Capturing stormwater in the basin will allow a slower recharge of the groundwater while also creating habitat for fish passage, including for steelhead trout. Not so long ago they ran so thick as to be caught by hand.

[1]Rohnert Park wins $6 million grant to help build flood-control basin,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, November 14, 2021


May 252023

Wildlife Fair at Jack London Park, May 20

What a gorgeous day to hold a Fair! People circulated through the thirteen booths distributed inside the Winery ruins in Jack London Park.

Up front there were three live birds: a raven, an owl, and a red tail hawk. Visitors were pulled right in and asked lots of questions.  Further along, there were bones and skulls and stuffed animals on display. Spread throughout were over 60 dramatic wildlife photos exhibited on panels. They brought the space to life.

Children approached with eyes wide and mouths round. “Birdie,” flap flap, or “Look Doggie,” woof woof. They were completely prepared to take it all in and love it. They rushed on to the next booth to see the fox and on and on.

Around 1500 people passed through in a constant stream. They paused to listen to the speeches given by local experts ranging from the effect of fire on wildlife, living with lions and bears, and the various ways throughout history that people have lived with local wildlife, all overseen by John McCaull, of Sonoma Land Trust, who wrangled the lot. The crowd’s response was enthusiastic, even raucous. 

Francisco Kilgore was present interviewing people to air on The Morning Show on KSVY 91.3.

We were incredibly lucky to have Sonoma Land Trust as a sponsor for the fair. But each of the thirteen organizations and three individual photographers participating brought their own passions and commitment to sharing their work and knowledge with the families and public who attended. All contributed to the success of the fair. Thanks to Uli Kolbe for taking many photos, allowing you a glimpse of the fun.

The participants circulated to share tales with their co-exhibitors, in some cases whom they hadn’t seen for years due to COVID. Having all these dedicated environmentalists in one space really created a frisson of energy and hope. Hope for the 30 by 30 goal – protecting 30% of our landmass for open space by 2030. Maybe even 50% one day. 

May 012023

Helping at the Wildlife Fair

by Nancy Kirwan

There is deep concern for the piecemeal approach that is requiring enormous effort on the part of the residents of and communities surrounding Sonoma Mountain to protect local open space and to sustain the wildlife corridor. There are interconnected watersheds, fragile habitats, and enormous beauty. Whenever a piece of land is developed in these areas, they are put at risk of land, water, and air pollution, increased fire risk, disruption of natural ecosystems, and the degradation of the natural environment.

After working on the book, Where the World Begins, it occurred to Sonoma Mountain Preservation (SMP) that looking at Sonoma Mountain as a whole rather than as its constituent parts might help us to come up with an effective method for protecting it as a bulwark against climate change and urban sprawl. We have been discussing the idea of a wildlife zone that would encompass the entire Mountain and set permanent standards regarding development. The idea of a conference connecting all the constituent environmental organizations that work on educating about, advocating for, and protecting the corpus of Sonoma Mountain and environs is being considered so that we could figure out the needed terms of such a blanket protection.

As I was mulling how to start pursuing that effort, I was contacted by Deborah Large, the Community Events Coordinator at Jack London State Historic Park (JLSHP), and asked about assisting her with a wildlife fair at JLSHP. I literally jumped at the chance. It is not a conference, but I saw it as an opportunity to have SMP work with JLSHP on bringing those same organizations together in an informal gathering that will be educating the public about Sonoma Mountain and the wildlife thereon while it connects the organizations in a common effort. Preliminary steps to a long-term goal.

Through contacts made during SMP’s advocacy work on protecting Sonoma Mountain and educating the public on its attributes over the last six years, I was able to reach out to a couple of dozen organizations, asking them if they’d be interested in participating.  The thrust of the solicitation was to thank each organization for all the work they had done in their particular area of expertise and to ask if they would like to share that expertise at a Wildlife Fair. LandPaths responded by saying, “This sounds like a fantastic event for sharing with the community the opportunities we have for them to get outside and about our mission to foster the love of the land in Sonoma County.”

We are thrilled to be bringing together over a dozen leading Bay Area nature, environmental, and rescue organizations who will be providing information and hands-on activities about local wildlife, challenges to survival, and ways that we can all successfully coexist. John McCaull of Sonoma Land Trust said that he is “really psyched about this event,” generously pledged SLT’s support for it and agreed to be Master of Ceremonies for the oral presentations!

The Fair includes educational booths, kids’ activities, a photo gallery of photos taken by local photographers, and participating organizations and speakers. There will be birds from the Bird Rescue Center, Activities about Our Wild Neighbors, and some booths will have video from trail cameras or slide shows of local wildlife captured on camera. John McCaull will give an introduction to Wildlife Corridors. Arthur Dawson will address what he has learned from indigenous elders. Eric Metz will be speaking about the wildlife he has encountered in the JLSHP. Quinton Martins will share his experiences with local mountain lions. Wendy Hayes will discuss living with black bears as they move back into the environs of Sonoma Valley, and John Roney will share what Sugarloaf has learned about fire and wildlife.

The Fair is free to all, though a parking fee of $10 or a state parks pass is required. As part of JLSHP’s free pass program, La Luz, Mentoring, Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and St. Leo’s are all being encouraged to distribute free parking passes for the day of the Fair to their families.

I can’t wait to see how all these organizations are working to support and protect the wildlife and wildlands on and around Sonoma Mountain. See you there!!!

Nancy Kirwan
Sonoma Mountain Preservation

May 012023

Developer chosen for SDC campus

By Melissa Dowling and Tracy Salcedo
Originally published in the April 15th edition of Kenwood Press

California’s Department of General Services (DGS) has selected Rogal & Partners and The Grupe Company as buyers for the 180-acre developed campus of the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC)

The April 3 announcement comes three months after the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a Specific Plan and environmental impact report (EIR) for the campus that allows for construction of at least 620 homes, more than 400,000 square feet of commercial space, and a resort hotel. The EIR currently faces a legal challenge contending it violates a number of provisions in the California Environmental Quality Act.

At least three groups submitted proposals for purchase of the campus, including a homegrown coalition, the Next 100 Years Plan, which envisioned retaining the property in public ownership via a special district. DGS, the state’s real estate branch, determined that the Grupe/Rogal team’s proposal “was most in keeping with the County’s plan for the site and has a track record of successfully delivering projects like this,” said Jennifer Iidapublic information officer with DGS.

Selection of a buyer initiates an exclusive negotiating agreement (ENA) process, which Iida explained is “an agreement between two parties that establishes processes and expectations for the sale of the property. It is just an initial step.” No firm timeline for the ENA has been established, Iida added, and the pending lawsuit against the county challenging the EIR “does not impact the timing or process” for the ENA.

“There will not be community outreach during the ENA process,” Iida noted. DGS also declined to provide a copy of the winning proposal until the purchase and sale agreement for the core campus is executed.

Selection of a buyer does not affect the anticipated transfer of approximately 750 acres of surrounding open space to California State Parks, Iida said. The state budget for fiscal 2023-2024 includes $3 million to enable that transfer.

The winning bidders

Rogal & Partners have either successfully redeveloped, or are in the process of redeveloping, two properties in the Napa Valley. A visit to the website www.rogal.net highlights the Carneros Inn project, which transformed “three separate and deteriorating properties” totaling 27 acres into a mixed-use resort hotel encompassing 96 hotel cottages, three restaurants, and 41 residences.

Napa Pipe, a redevelopment encompassing 168 acres along the Napa River, is also featured on the website. Yet to be built outs, Napa Pipe is described as “a compact, walkable, urban neighborhood, with great streets, parks and public amenities, expressly designed for the needs and desires of today’s smaller households of all ages and incomes.” Senior (150 units), affordable (190 units), and market-rate (755 units) housing is planned for the site, along with a hotel, restaurants, light industrial and office space, and a Costco.

The website states development of Carneros Inn and planning for Napa Pipe has included “substantial” and “unprecedented” community engagement and outreach.

The Grupe Company has developed “more than 12 master-planned communities [and] more than 50,000 homes in 35 cities nationwide,” according to its website (https://grupe.com), as well as “preserved wildlife habitat areas and open spaces” associated with those developments Current and past projects include single family subdivisions, apartments, and storage facilities in the East Bay, Sacramento, Lodi, and Nevada.

Keith Rogal of Rogal & Partners, responding to questions from the Kenwood Press via email, said, “We feel honored to have been chosen by DGS as the right team to take on such an important responsibility.” He noted that the SDC is an “extraordinary property, with so many exceptional attributes. We are thrilled by the opportunity to work with the community in protecting and preserving natural resources of the SDC, enhancing the landscape, and creating a built environment that can meet present and future County needs and goals.”

Asked what he believes compelled the state to chose the Grupe/Rogal proposal, Rogal said, “We don’t know which factors were at work in the State’s decision process, but our two companies have deep experience in complex, mixed-use projects, specifically in and around small city and rural settings. We understand and care passionately about sustainability, natural resource conservation, the design of parks and open spaces, and the creation of vibrant, walkable communities for persons of all ages and incomes.”

Looking to the future, Rogal explained that, “a top priority is to review with great care the many comments already provided by members of the community, through the Specific Plan process. We have also put up a website at www.SDC-community.com to provide a place for interested parties to get their thoughts to us directly, and/or just to let us know they’d like us to keep them informed as the process moves ahead.

Addressing a timeline, Rogal said, “from now through summer and on into the fall, we will be principally in an information-gathering mode, and community input is central to that foundational planning work.”

Asked if there are specific plans yet for the development, Rogal said, “Our plan is to implement the vision defined by the County in the SDC Specific Plan. At this early stage, we do not have additional detail above and beyond that which was created by the County planning process.”

County and community response

In a press release announcing the selection of the Grupe/Rogal partnership, First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said, “We’re deeply grateful for the state’s work on this and for naming a developer for this vital site in the heart of Sonoma Valley … We look forward to helping ensure the developer provides numerous opportunities to outreach and hear from the community to develop a project that reflects the qualities of Sonoma Valley while addressing the needs within the guidelines of the SDC specific plan.”

Sonoma County isn’t part of the sale process, noted Bradley Dunn, policy manager with Permit Sonoma, which is responsible for ensuring redevelopment complies with the Specific Plan.

Permit Sonoma may enter into a development agreement with the buyer once the sale is finalized, but because the developer “initiates a development agreement,” Dunn couldn’t comment on what that might entail “or the timeline for a hypothetical agreement.” If a development agreement is reached, however, Dunn said “it would require hearings with the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. Both would include public participation.”

Teresa Murphy of the Glen Ellen Historical Society (GEHS) and a member of the Next 100 Years team, composed a letter to the editor expressing that group’s frustration with the outcome. “Hundreds of hours of testimony, meetings, and planning were based on the dream that this community could actually influence the outcome” of redevelopment of the SDC, she wrote. “The dream was dashed with the award by [DGS] to the Napa developer Rogal and Partners and the Grupe Company.”

Speaking only for himself, not as a representative of any organization, Bean Anderson, a community stakeholder affiliated with the GEHS and the Next 100 Years Plan, worried that selection of the Grupe/Rogal partnership threatens the integrity of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, which includes the campus. “Future zoning changes at the request of a large developer could easily destroy what little is left of the wildlife corridor,” he said.

Both Anderson and Murphy asserted the need for continued community advocacy for the campus and its retention as public land.

“The protection of the ecological, historic, and environmental integrity of the area depends upon the land being managed for the public good—by remaining in public hands or in a responsible trust. This should be our goal,” Anderson stated.

For details on the Specific Plan and the EIR, visit www.sdcspecificplan.com. For information on the lawsuit, visit the Sonoma Community Advocates for a Liveable Eldridge (SCALE) at scaledownsdc.org.

Tracy Salcedo is an award-winning writer based in Glen Ellen. She is a board member of Sonoma Mountain Preservation, which is part of SCALE.