As the morning sun filtered down Saturday through giant redwoods, about a dozen people carrying loppers and handsaws made their way through Occidental’s 33-acre Grove of Old Trees.
Twigs and leaves crunched softly beneath their boots as the crew of volunteers wound through the nature preserve, tucked away on a ridgeline above town and so quiet on a weekend morning. For most of the visitors, it was their first foray into a 16-acre parcel newly acquired by LandPaths, a Santa Rosa-based stewardship organization that cares for this land. The new acreage tacks on to the northern edge of the old growth redwood stand and slopes slowly downward toward Coleman Valley Road.
The addition isn’t yet ready for public access, with no trails in place and much restoration work needed to be done to protect the oak woodland habitat before regular visitors will be allowed.
“We’re starting the process of really trying to get the community out in focused ways, in guided ways, so that we can start to get feedback,” said Nicolas Whitaker, education coordinator for LandPaths. “(So we can) start to get peoples’ impressions about what spots are meaningful to them, what spots are impressive to them. As we eventually start to begin a trail corridor down here — just to kind of get direct access — we can really include community feedback on how to do that.”
Saturday morning’s work to remove young Douglas firs encroaching on a forest of Oregon white oaks was an example of the kind of stewardship that’s needed to protect the wildland before advancing public access. If allowed to mature, the firs would likely shade out the white oaks, killing them off and displacing wildlife that’s made this patch of forest home.
“This parcel in particular is such amazing wildlife habitat,” Whitaker said. “The bunch grass meadows and the oak woodland tend to support more diversity of birds, small mammals, creatures like deer, fox, coyote. The bunch grass directly is food for deer, but it’s habitat for insects which then are food for birds. … The seeds are a super important food source for small rodents, which in turn are a food source for northern spotted owls. So it’s just that everything is connected.
“There are very few spots where you can find a native oak and bunch grass meadow (in California). They’re gone. This is an endangered habitat.”
Among the volunteer crew were friends Laura Whiting and Chris Peterson, both of Santa Rosa. They lopped off saplings growing throughout the meadow.
Peterson is a member of LandPaths, and invited Whiting out with her for the day.
“This is such a Zen spot, and it gives me such a wonderful excuse to come out here,” Peterson said, standing beneath the oaks. “And I’m actually able to give back rather than just enjoy it personally. … I knew she’d appreciate it. It’s such a hard spot to describe.”
You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeaWarren.
The Grove of Old Trees is at 17400 Fitzpatrick Lane in Occidental, and is open from sunrise to sunset.
The winding, tree-lined road has a 15 mph speed limit. Visitors are asked to drive slowly, carpool if possible and not to park along the narrow roadway. Weekdays are typically better for visits, as the park can become popular on weekends and the small gravel parking lot at the main trailhead can fill up.