On a foggy Saturday morning earlier this month at Rancho Mark West, 14-year-old Leslie Barrera placed a redwood sapling into a steep hillside where a magnificent forest once thrived.
Dozens of other volunteers of all ages and backgrounds stepped gingerly around stumps and rocks dotting the open space preserve northeast of Santa Rosa to arrive at spots marked by little orange flags.
Their mission: to plant 4,500 redwood saplings to help offset environmental damage wrought by last year’s devastatingly destructive Glass fire and restore beauty and shade for future generations of visitors.
“It’s amazing how one small plant can turn into a big thing,” Barrera, a Piner High School freshman, said as she packed dirt around the sapling.
Her mother, Margarita Garcia, stood nearby with a pickax in hand. The tool was a sharp departure from those Garcia normally uses to clean houses.
“We are so inspired to do this because we are so aware of climate changes,” she said in reference to the planting work, which is happening at a time of increasing threat of drought-induced megafires in the arid West.
Garcia belongs to the nonprofit LandPaths, which stewards the 120-acre Rancho Mark West property alongside original owners Jim and Betty Doerksen. The St. Helena Road site, about 20 minutes from downtown Santa Rosa, is a beloved community hub and outdoor classroom offering kids an immersive experience in nature.
Besides the aesthetic value of the tree plantings, the work carries significant environmental implications well beyond the boundaries of the sensitive watershed.
The property includes about a mile of Mark West Creek, which originates about 6 miles west of St. Helena in Napa County and meanders for miles before emptying into the Russian River near Steelhead Beach. The creek is one of only a few tributaries of the river that still supports a healthy population of steelhead trout, a threatened species in the watershed.
In the aftermath of the Glass fire and the loss of so many trees, there is now concern over sediment emptying into the creek as a result of hillside erosion.
In September of last year, Jim Doerksen, 82, mounted a successful defense of the couple’s home and other structures on the property when flames from the Glass fire roared into what is widely known as Alpine Valley.
“It sounded like a 747 (airplane) landing,” Doerksen recalled of the fire’s awful roar.
Doerksen and his small crew were powerless, however, to stop flames from marching up the hillside and torching a wide swath of forest.
The retired engineer and real estate entrepreneur estimates he planted more than a million Douglas firs and redwoods on the property — so many that by the time he and Betty sold the development rights to the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District in 1993, the ranch was carpeted by a majestic forest of trees, many standing hundreds of feet tall. The couple also operated a popular Christmas tree farm.
Doerksen worked tirelessly over the years to reduce wildfire risk, limbing trees, reducing ladder fuels and building shaded fuel breaks. But that work was no match for the Glass fire, which Doerksen estimated burned more than a million board feet of wood.
He has spent the past year, and more than $175,000 out of his own pocket, on clearing burned trees and other restoration work. That amount includes $9,000 to purchase the 4,500 redwood saplings from Mendocino Redwood Company.
The couple are seeking to continue their legacy of stewarding the land for the public good. With no children of their own, they consider the kids who attend Owl Camp and other LandPaths programs to be members of their extended family.