JENNER - A spit of sand at the mouth of the Russian River where hundreds of harbor seals have entered life will soon be dotted with mothers and their newborn pups as birthing season gets under way.
Watching over them will be human volunteers who, for three decades, have devoted their time to protecting harbor seals on the beach from throngs of weekend visitors whose enthusiasm for the coast, its ocean vistas and its wildlife can put at risk the pups and the larger seal population of up to 300.
Cobbled together by a few stalwart folks in 1985 to reinforce the efforts of state park rangers stretched thin along 14 miles of Sonoma Coast State Park, the Seal Watch program helped usher in an era of volunteerism that has sustained and enhanced state parks in Sonoma County ever since.
It started as a focused campaign to educate the public about the need to give the seals their space and has blossomed into a large, multi-faceted nonprofit organization whose contributions can be found throughout the beaches, neighboring watersheds and forests that make up the park system’s Russian River Sector.
From trail repair to tide pool tours, stream bed restoration to bird surveys, the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods provides it, relying on its base of about 350 volunteers and partnering with myriad public and nonprofit agencies aligned with preserving park lands and increasing human engagement with them.
“It’s a great program, and it has really expanded its reach,” said Andrea Pecharich, an environmental specialist with the Sonoma County Water Agency, one such collaborator.
The Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods is one of 87 nonprofit organizations registered as California State Park “cooperating agencies,” and has harnessed tens of thousands of volunteer hours over the years. Its work in the early years was supported through camp firewood sales and donations, Executive Director Michele Luna said.
As it celebrates 30 years of service, the Stewards now boasts an annual budget of $700,000 and a paid staff of nine, working out of a classic New Deal-era camp building at the rear of the Armstrong Grove.
It runs visitor centers on the coast at Jenner and at Armstrong Woods, organizes hikes, work days, wildlife monitoring programs and docent tours on topics like tracking wildlife, edible plants and coastal geography.
The Stewards was the fiscal agent for a more than $1 million, 10-year project to restore the Willow Creek channel and fish passage on state park land.
In 2009, it contracted with the Sonoma County Water Agency to monitor harbor seals and other pinnipeds at the Russian River mouth, documenting any population and behavioral shifts in a new era of estuary management required by federal fisheries officials.
And in 2012, during dire days for California parks, it stepped in to handle fee collections at Armstrong Grove and assume full operations of adjoining Austin Creek State Recreation Area, saving it from closure.
The group also added an online reservation system to the park last year, raising camping revenues by more than 90 percent, Luna said.
“We’re definitely happy to have them,” said Russian River Sector Superintendent Mike Lair. “We couldn’t do it alone, obviously, and they’ve been really good to work with.”
A sparkling sea greets visitors in Jenner, a small village perched on the edge of the estuary, where the lumbering river, wide as it curves around the north side of Goat Rock Beach, narrows suddenly at a small channel in the sandbar and rushes to meet the incoming surf.