Amid devastating budget cuts and threats of widespread closures, the call has been sounded for the community to rally behind California's state parks.
It's a call JoDean Nicolette of Santa Rosa has heeded for years.
The 45-year-old physician spends from 300 to 500 hours a year astride one of her three horses patrolling Sugarloaf, Jack London and Annadel state parks. As president of the Valley of the Moon sector of the California State Parks Mounted Assistance Unit, Nicolette and her approximately 75 equestrian and 15 cycling patrol colleagues offer water and directions, issue rule reminders, and keep keen eyes alert for fires or other hazards.
"As the parks rely more and more on volunteers for services, we have stepped up our role," Nicolette said.
"In general, our role is to educate and inform and promote the idea that everybody at the park is a steward of the park," she said.
In the face of staggering budget cuts, the Sonoma County parks department, with support from the Parks Alliance of Sonoma County, has agreed to take over operations at Annadel, while the nonprofit Valley of the Moon Natural History Association will run Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen and a coalition of nonprofits are at the helm at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.
The state originally announced plans to shut 70 of California's 278 parks to achieve $11 million in annual savings.
Volunteers have become a lifeline for the revamped organization of the parks, said Susan St. Marie, volunteer manager for all three parks for which Nicolette oversees mounted patrols.
"It's absolutely crucial and essential to keeping these parks open," she said. "People love the parks. People want to help."
"The role (of volunteers) isn't really changing all that much, it's just expanding," St. Marie said.
Nicolette said the community's rallying behind Annadel in particular is proof positive of Sonoma County's appreciation for the multi-use park in the middle of Santa Rosa.
"In the case of Annadel, we have seen how much the community is willing to step up," she said.
Cyclists have hosted mountain bike fundraisers, while runners have launched a half-marathon to promote use and raise funds for the 5,000-acre park.
"I find the stewardship that all the user groups in this area feel is really unique," Nicolette said. "We really should hold ourselves up as an example in the state."
Nicolette, who when she is not riding trails astride one of her horses, explores them on foot. She runs about 30 to 50 miles a week, the majority in state parks.
"I believe our intersection with nature is really good for ourselves and our well being," she said.
(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)