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In bad times and good, the wetlands known as the Laguna de Santa Rosa have remained largely hidden from public view.

The slough-like waterway is largely unvisited, even though it extends for 14 miles through the middle of Sonoma County, from Cotati to the Russian River near Forestville.

Over the last century this largest complex of freshwater wetlands on the North Coast has been at times a depository of storm runoff, apple processing waste and sewage. More recently, secluded lands have been set aside for wildlife, including bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and river otters.

The Laguna environs include oak woodlands and vernal pools. Its sloping grasslands offer sweeping views of the surrounding hills to the east and west.

And its future was highlighted last week when scientists, government officials and environmental groups met in Rohnert Park to discuss how the Laguna and other ecosystems may be affected by climate change. Many at the three-day conference agreed that local organizations will need to work together more closely to devise comprehensive environmental solutions that can better attract outside grant funds.

"We all recognize the challenges are much wider than the Laguna," said David Bannister, executive director of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, the conference's sponsor.

County officials this decade have called for more hiking and biking access to the Laguna, a space within minutes of downtown Santa Rosa. By next year the first trail may begin to take shape on public land near Sebastopol.

The prospect of opening the area elicits both hope for the public's enlightenment to a neglected gem and concerns about degradation to habitat and surrounding farmlands.

"You can cross the Laguna at different points, but there isn't a lot of access," said Denise Cadman, a natural resource specialist for the City of Santa Rosa.

Three years ago, the county Board of Supervisors approved a trail system along the Laguna. The first proposed path, estimated then to cost $1.7 million, would run for about a mile along the western edge of Santa Rosa's Kelly Farm from Highway 12 to Occidental Road. It would accommodate hikers, cyclists and equestrians.

But the county's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which has purchased land and easements, still needs permission to build the trail section from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps of Engineers. To obtain permits it must satisfy the federal agencies concerns about the area's endangered tiger salamander.

"Ideally we would love to break ground in 2010," said Maria Cipriani, the district's assistant's general manager.

Advocates of open space say access could help people better understand why the Laguna is worth preserving.

"People take care of what they love, and they come to love it by experiencing it," said Christine Fontaine, director of Education for the non-profit Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation.

Cadman seconded that idea as she stood near a wetlands where schoolchildren were watching great horned owls and speckled woodpeckers known as northern flickers.

Nonetheless, she noted that Santa Rosa never had to deal with trespassing and homeless encampments on its city-owned farmlands near the Laguna before the Joe Rodota Trail was opened. Now cleaning up the trash from illegal campsites along the trail has become a weekly chore.

"We need to have some areas where there aren't more disturbances from humans," she said, "where wildlife can just be wildlife."

The Laguna drains a 240-mile watershed. During fierce rainstorms it can rise up into a vast lake, holding back waters and helping to reduce river flooding.

Its wetlands have been significantly ditched and drained since the arrival of Europeans more than 150 years ago.

A half-century ago, the Laguna was "viewed as kind of a wasteland worth nothing," said Kenyon Webster, Sebastopol's planning director. In those days Sebastopol owned land there for its sewage treatment plant and for a disposal site for its apple processing plants.

Today that same land has been converted into a wetlands preserve. A floating metal bridge spans a deep pool in summer and early fall, allowing passage from Morris Street to the preserve.

Webster, who calls the Laguna "an outstanding birdwatching area," said public trails "would really enhance the communities and the experiences that people can have."

One idea that drew attention at last week's conference is the county's commitment to restore more native trees and plants along local waterways, including the Laguna. Such planting can help slow floodwaters in the extra intense rains that may come with climate change, said Grant Davis, assistant general manager for the county Water Agency.

"It also makes for healthier creeks," he said.

For cyclists, the proposed Laguna trail could become part of a future county bike route extending from the farmlands west of Santa Rosa to Rohnert Park. The route would connect with two multi-use trails that reach back to Santa Rosa, the Joe Rodota Trail and the Santa Rosa Creek Trail.

Christine Culver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said the Laguna trail would provide an important link for bike routes and would increase travelers coming to visit the area.

"Ecotourism is definitely one of the ways that Sonoma County can be successful," Culver said.

But Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said farmers have concerns about the proximity of such trails to their farms and ranches. The concerns range from trespassing, to fire dangers to threats to livestock from hikers with dogs.

"How do you deal with these issues of liability and risk?" McCorvey asked. "Because they're real."

County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who represents west Sonoma County, said the Laguna trail is part of the open space district's goals to better connect people to the land.

"You can't get that familiarity by driving by," Carrillo said.