Congress approves landmark Great American Outdoors Act that has bolstered Sonoma County parks
A bill that sailed through the House on Wednesday and appears headed for President Donald Trump’s signature props up funding for federal grants that have helped develop some of Sonoma County’s most beloved parks, pools and trails for the past 50 years.
The little-known grants, funded by royalties from offshore oil and gas production, have contributed $7.5 million to outdoor recreation projects ranging from 5,000-acre Trione-Annadel State Park to a Russian River boat ramp and city swimming pools.
“It’s a big win for Sonoma County,” said Eamon O’Byrne, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust, a nonprofit that has protected more than 52,000 acres since 1976.
The Great American Outdoors Act, approved on a 310 to 107 vote in the House of Representatives, would guarantee $900 million a year in funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in 1964 to acquire and improve public lands. It would halt congressional diversion of more than $20 billion over the years from the fund, a step hailed by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who represents the entire North Coast.
“A lot of money will flow to parks and recreation, and all of that is welcome news in my district,” he said.
The bill was approved by the Senate on a 73 to 25 vote last month. Trump has pledged to sign the bill, tweeting it will be “HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.” Prior to his enthusiastic tweet, Trump had previously proposed nearly eliminating funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Washington Post reported.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who also voted for the bill Wednesday, said the fund was “a proven method of preserving public lands while also supporting local economies.”
“We are a nation full of incredible public lands and beautiful open spaces that we must work to preserve for generations to enjoy,” he said in a press release.
Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, said the Land and Water Conservation Fund is “the single most important funding source for protecting land in perpetuity.” The district, funded by a quarter-cent sales tax, has protected more than 117,000 acres in Sonoma County.
Misti Arias, the district’s acquisition manager, said the the agency is considering the purchase of several properties covering about 25,000 acres. The lands would cost about $75 million and the district, with less than $20 million available, is seeking partners and the prospect of a Land and Water Conservation Fund grant.
The San Pablo Baylands Project, a 10-year, $200-million effort to restore 10,000 acres of wetlands along the county’s southernmost reach, is “a good candidate for grant funding,” O’Byrne said. The land trust is a partner in the project, which is aimed at creating a buffer against rising seal levels to protect Highway 37 and create habitat for a billion birds that migrate every year along the Pacific Flyway, he said.
Another funding candidate is acquisition of the Southeast Greenway, a two-mile strip of Caltrans property the land trust intends to acquire for $2 million, O’Byrne said. The greenway would form another link in the land trust’s goal of connecting 1,100-acre Taylor Mountain Regional Park with Annadel, giving southeast Santa Rosa residents pedestrian access to the extended public lands.
O’Bryne said the bill recognizes the value of human contact with nature.
“It’s not nice to have; it’s almost like a public utility,” O’Byrne said. “You have to have it for a functioning society, a functioning economy.”
Sonoma Land Trust was listed as one of the more than 850 organizations endorsing the outdoors act, including the Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, California League of Conservation Voters and REI Co-op.
Bert Whitaker, the Sonoma County Regional Parks director, hailed Wednesday’s vote as “good news.”
The county won its first grant from the fund in 1970, securing $74,970 for acquisition of 375 acres on Hood Mountain. It became one of the county’s first three regional parks and is now a 1,750-acre park and open space preserve at the edge of Sonoma Valley.
From 1971 to 1974, the state Department of Parks and Recreation obtained three grants totaling $2.6 million to establish Trione-Annadel park, one of the county’s premiere outdoor attractions. The late Henry Trione, a business leader and philanthropist, secured an option on the Annadel acreage, which was ripe for residential development, and personally put more than $1 million into the parkland deal.
“Imagine Santa Rosa without Annadel,” Whitaker said.
Parks and recreational facilities backed by grants include Salt Point State Park; Tolay Lake, Gualala Point, Maxwell Farms, Steelhead Beach and Stillwater Cove regional parks; the Joe Rodota Trail; Petaluma’s Lucchesi Park and Rohnert Park’s Sunrise Park; swimming pools in Rohnert Park and Healdsburg; and Monte Rio’s boat ramp.
The 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands Preserve on the Sonoma Coast — the single largest investment in public lands in county history — was a $36 million acquisition that included $1 million from the federal fund, said Frazier Hamey, deputy director of The Wildlands Conservancy, which helped finance and now manages the preserve.
The conservancy, which has established the largest nonprofit nature preserve system in California, included an $18 million federal grant in purchasing more than 600,000 acres of railroad land in the Southern California desert that was the largest conservation land gift in history, he said.
The county parks have applied for an $850,000 grant to help finance acquisition of about 515 acres of land along about a mile of Dutch Bill Creek adjacent to a park owned by the Monte Rio Recreation and Park District. The property has been appraised at $3.9 million and county parks are seeking several other funding sources. Park acquisitions can have four to 10 funding sources and the federal fund is “one of the big ones,” Whitaker said.
Public lands advocates say the coronavirus pandemic has elevated the importance of their mission. Marcia August of The Pew Charitable Trust wrote that “an increasing number of Americans have sought solace in the outdoors,” heightening the value of parks and open lands.
“Outdoor recreation matches the times we are in,” said O’Byrne, the land trust director. People can hike, run, bike, fish and kayak “and do it all at a safe distance.”
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or email@example.com. On Twitter @guykovner.