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A land for learning

  • Sonoma State students Maya Hoholick and Jeff Johnson conduct water quality tests at Kelly Pond in the Fairfield Osborn Preserve in Penngrove on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

A walkabout at the Fairfield Osborn Preserve can be about many things.

Suzanne DeCoursey, who leads tours of the 450-acre preserve owned and managed by Sonoma State University, loves to point out the intriguing features a visitor might never notice. Maybe it is an historic artifact like the rock wall near the Education and Research Center, half obscured within the landscape. The low, knee-high pile of stones was laid by the first white settlers back in the 1850s.

“That is a section line, put up because it was a property marker,” says DeCoursey, the education and reservations manager for this outdoor laboratory and research preserve on the northwest flank of Sonoma Mountain, which was set aside for students, faculty, schoolchildren and members of the public for scientific and creative inquiry.

Several yards away, she pauses to point out a ragged clump of tall grass, California fescue.

“Very few people realize this. But these grasses can grow to be over 200 years old. So as you walk past this grass,” she says, “realize that it will probably outlive you, your grandchildren and even your great-grandchildren. So treat it with respect.”

Fairfield Osborn is a place of small and large wonders, like the giant “mole track,” an extrusion of rock paste extending like a low ridge down from the Visitor’s Center to the perennial Copeland Creek. It’s unclear if it was caused by landslides or tectonic activity, but geologists believe it is the largest “mole track” in the country.

A walk around the preserve, 10 minutes and a world away from Rohnert Park, also compels careful notice of the small pinkish flags tucked into the ground, each marking the site of a research study or experiment.

Notice the little silver mailbox structures in which UC Berkeley is testing the aerial transmission of the pathogen that causes Sudden Oak Death.

Or look up from the parking lot at the weather data collection stations where electrical engineering students are engaged in trying to understand the real-world challenges in monitoring the environment and climate change.

Although it’s been in existence as a preserve for more than 40 years, Fairfield Osborn has remained well under the radar compared to many open-space areas in public ownership.

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