By CRAIG ANDERSON
Craig Anderson is executive director of LandPaths, based in Santa Rosa. Additional information is available at www.landpaths.org.
In what has become something of an annual tradition, state parks recently announced another round of “service reductions.” With this announcement comes the closure of many trailheads, beach access points and campgrounds in Sonoma County and around the state.
We are reminded of last year’s threats from Sacramento that Annadel State Park and other local gems would be shuttered. With public funds increasingly scarce, it is clear that we need another solution to keep our local parks open and cared for. To combat the closed park blues, we need “people power.”
Last month, at the Grove of Old Trees, a 30-acre redwood preserve near Occidental, people power was in action. Despite the steady rain, 40 neighbors and other users from as far away as Santa Rosa and Cazadero gathered to steward this ridgetop forest. By maintaining trails and clearing fuel loads to reduce fire risk, these Friends of the Grove took action to keep the Grove of Old Trees preserve open to the public — and strengthened community connections in the process. Beyond the vital physical labor of this stewardship, the friends group is a volunteer-led team that raises dollars for the preserve, makes decisions about the work to be done and helps the landowner — LandPaths — to operate it as a publicly accessible open space.
With volunteer help such as this, LandPaths, a Sonoma County nonprofit, has been providing a new way of “opening” open space and parks since 1997. Today, with the recent defeat of Proposition 21 (the state parks budget initiative) and with public budgets continuing on a downward spiral, the need for people power has never been greater. Through this model, more than 5,400 acres of local state, county and city land that would otherwise be closed to the public is instead open and cared for.
“The enthusiasm for this model is fantastic,” said Caryl Hart, the new Sonoma County Regional Parks director, while attending a recent Taylor Mountain permit orientation, along with 100 other hikers, bikers and horseback riders. “It’s going to have tremendous influence on the future of how we open new parks.”
Barefoot Winery co-founders and long-time conservation supporters Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey also received their permits for use. Houlihan commented, “By giving people a stake in the land, LandPaths provides open access where public budgets have fallen short.”
Gary Abreim, committee chairman of the Friends of the Grove, is enthusiastic about the role he plays in providing access, upkeep and support. “Neighbors and communities have to take a bold step and come together to protect our parks. We can’t count on Washington and Sacramento anymore,” he says.
People power is not only good for the land and park users, it’s also cost effective. At the Willow Creek addition to Sonoma Coast State Park, users-turned-stewards utilize their access as an opportunity for care and stewardship. Hikers, bikers and equestrians pick up garbage, report on maintenance and safety issues, organize public tours and even volunteer to assist in trail upkeep and invasive species removal, saving public agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars while keeping parks open.
With people-powered parks, LandPaths provides public agencies and private landowners not only with volunteers to reduce management costs but also with the professional oversight and insurance to reduce liability costs. “In my estimation it’s the cheapest date in government; they’re running parks for pennies on the dollar,” says Rick Ryan, a Jenner resident, businessman and Willow Creek Park permit holder.
This “cheap date” is quickly garnering attention around the region and state. “We are looking at the public adoption of open space work that LandPaths is pioneering as a model for to help shape the future direction of land trusts statewide” says Bill Leahy, co-chairman of the California Council of Land Trusts.
Most of us would like nothing more than to see our park agency budgets restored to functional levels and will continue to work toward that goal. In the meantime, however, we can keep the closed park blues at bay with a strong dose of people power.