Exploring Sonoma Land Trust's newest 'Forever Lands'
On a sunny Sunday morning, the preserve at Sears Point Ranch is nearly deserted. A birdwatcher, having observed the gulls, the ducks and perhaps the killdeer and osprey, holds his binoculars flat to his chest as he climbs down from the levee and heads back to his car. A kayaker rolls her yellow boat to the put-in. A hiker checks out a set of interpretive signs, then ambles eastward along the wide, flat Eliot Trail.
The tide is in, and the water flooding the restored wetlands is rippled by a gentle wind out of the northwest. A red-winged blackbird stills, like a kite, over the swaying grasses on the inland side of the levee, then tucks his wings back and darts away with the breeze. His red flags flash as he pulls up for a landing, then he settles on a clump of grass and folds those flags across his shoulders. Later, perhaps, he's among the dozen blackbirds mobbing a pair of crows, driving the bigger birds away from their waterside territory.
Sears Point Ranch is one of many properties the Sonoma Land Trust (SLT) has secured for Sonoma County wildland lovers as open space in perpetuity. The lowland portion of the property, which has been transferred to the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, is open for exploration and, as the SLT's director of communications Sheri Cardo explains, offers a variety of recreational opportunities, as well as refuge for bird and sea life in the restored wetlands.
The 5-mile, out-and-back Eliot Trail, a segment of the San Francisco Bay Trail, is a walk-and-talk track; a levee-top road wide enough to comfortably support multiple use. On the outbound journey headed east, Cougar Mountain, rising above an uplands area across busy CA 37 held by the SLT, forms the skyline to the northeast. Far to the south, on a clear day, the twin summits of Mount Diablo rise gray-black on the horizon. On the return, Mount Tamalpais and Mount Burdell mark the compass points southwest and northwest, respectively. The 0.3-mile, out-and-back Dickson Trail arcs into the Dickson Ranch Marsh from a cluster of benches and interpretive signs atop the levee. A 1.3-mile out-and-back trail leads to the Baylands Center, an education and event facility owned by the SLT. To the west, the Sonoma Baylands Trail extends through older restored marshland toward the Port Sonoma Marina.
For kayakers, Cardo explains that the restored tidal basin, flooded by a levee breach in October 2015, is a “remarkable” paddling experience. The restoration included the construction of hundreds of “marsh mounds,” which slow the inflow and outflow of tidewaters so sediments can amass. The experience is one-of-a-kind for paddlers; “there's no topography like it in the Bay Area,” Cardo explains. She also offers this caution: Paddlers shouldn't venture out into the bay proper, where strong currents are present. For more information on the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Sears Point Ranch recreational opportunities, visit tinyurl.com/lw92f2e or the SLT site at sonomalandtrust.org.
Sears Point Ranch isn't the only property the SLT has protected as open space, and then transferred to a public agency that could provide the infrastructure to support recreational access. As Cardo notes, the trust is not in the recreation business; it doesn't, for example, have rangers, though docents are at the ranch on Saturdays between 9 a.m. and noon, offering interpretation and information about the wetlands restoration.
Instead, when the SLT acquires or secures a conservation easement on a parcel where public access is appropriate, the organization works with agencies like the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Sonoma County Regional Parks or, as is the case at Sears Point, a federal land management agency, to enable that access.
In the case of Tolay Creek Ranch, another soon-to-be accessible open space in southern Sonoma County, the SLT acquired the 1,665-acre property in 2007 and transferred it in March 2017 to Sonoma County Regional Parks as an addition to Tolay Lake Regional Park. When open to the public-planned for late 2017-the Tolay Creek/Tolay Lake park complex, comprising more than 3,400 acres, will be the largest in the county and will offer hiking trails, wildlife viewing, wildflower blooms in season and other recreational opportunities. Guided hikes on the Tolay Lake property are now available, and the park is currently open to permit holders. Visit the regional parks website here for more information.
Recreational opportunities on the Jenner Headlands property, which is managed in partnership with The Wildlands Conservancy and protected with a conservation easement held by the Sonoma open space district, will open up once the conservancy completes a parking area off CA 1, expected in fall or winter 2017, according to Cardo. Once the headlands open, the SLT's Pole Mountain will be accessible as well, offering “hardy hikers” the opportunity to climb to the top of the highest point along the Sonoma coast.