Laguna de Santa Rosa docents dedicated to waterway

The Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation’s mission is to “restore, conserve and inspire,” but people involved in it say it does much more than that. The 22-mile waterway is the main artery in a 254-square-mile watershed that starts in Cotati and extends to Forestville and the Russian River. While some people in Sonoma County are just discovering the reach and value of the Laguna, there is a dedicated band of volunteers who return year after year to steward the important ecosystem.

“There are so many reasons to love the Laguna: the plants, wildlife, birds, but I find so often that I am fulfilled by the connections to the people who care about the land,” said Christine Fontaine, director of education programs for the Laguna Foundation. “It’s the people coming together that keeps sustaining me in my work.”

Longtime Sonoma County residents Steve and Suzanne Abrams are two members of what Fontaine refers to as the “Laguna people.” The retired parole agent and teacher, respectively, moved to Santa Rosa over 40 years ago, but didn’t really know about the Laguna until recently. In 2012, they decided to volunteer as Laguna guides, inspired in part by the death of a friend who had led hikes through the area. The couple said they love learning about the Laguna’s cultural and natural history but, echoing Fontaine’s sentiments, meeting and educating the community stands out most for them - especially the people who are born and raised nearby.

“Surprisingly, a lot of people who are from this area have no knowledge of the Laguna,” said Steve Abrams. “It flabbergasted me!”

The Abramses share a wealth of knowledge about the Laguna. They help lead guided walks around the four acres of the Laguna Foundation’s Environmental Center off Occidental Road, taking visitors into areas that aren’t usually open to the public. Laguna guides also help run kids’ activities, bring people out to bird-watching spots and facilitate rotating art shows and events in the inviting, light-filled Blue Heron Hall.

They also teach people about the fascinating history of the property, which is anchored by a stately farmhouse from the 1870s. In the 1980s, it was slated to be burned down for practice by the fire department, but citizens spoke up and, in 2009, individual donors raised money to restore it. It now houses the Laguna Foundation’s offices, complete with front row views of endangered pond turtles and Mount St. Helena.

As the Abramses recalled, the property has had many incarnations over the decades. In the 1890s, it was a hops farm and then a dairy ranch and, in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a notorious crash pad that Steve visited as a parole agent. Now, instead of tracking down parolees, he comes to the land armed with a camera and photographs the rise and fall of vernal pools and a nesting pair of barn owls in the palm trees.

In a sense, the evolving relationship the Abramses have had with the Laguna - from unknown and unexamined open space to neglected and nefarious crash pad and back to protected and valued ecosystem - mirrors the changing relationship between the Laguna and the larger community. As Fontaine explained, the watershed was an integral resource for food and water for the original Native American inhabitants of Sonoma County. It then became a revered resort for vacationing city dwellers who rowed boats across the unspoiled lakes. As the county’s population grew, the importance of the wetlands was trumped by an increased need for agricultural land and the lakes and creeks were drained and channelized. For a period of time after that, it became the county’s dumping ground and sewer. Finally, in 1972, the Clean Water Act started to change things. Awareness of the importance of wetlands and watersheds grew and, in 1989, a passionate group of citizens formed the Laguna Foundation to protect and care for the unique habitat. It was a completely volunteer-run organization until 2003, when the first staff person was hired.

“The community has always been responsible for the health of the Laguna,” Fontaine said. “The history of the Laguna is falling in love with it and working to make a difference.”

The Laguna Foundation now has 12 employees. 95 percent of the Laguna is privately owned, but the widely used Laguna Trail, which is part of Sonoma County Regional Parks, weaves through public land in the cities of Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.

There is also a new 1.8-mile trail on the south side of the Laguna, by the Rohnert Park Expressway and Stony Point Road, that is part of a larger restoration project to expand the riparian area and increase wildlife habitat.

The foundation also stands strong to its mission of restoration and protects many areas with endangered species. The group planted over 9000 multi-level trees and plants, like oak, willows and elderberry, to support its primary role as a floodplain that filters water, dissipates pollutants and provides habitat for a multitude of wildlife and plants. Fontaine explained that, like many people, she would love to have more access to the Laguna because “it’s part of what makes living in Sonoma County so special.”

But on the other hand, she said, if you truly love nature, you understand that people sometimes have a limited place in it.

“If you love a bird, you love its habitat and you’re going to want to give that bird space,” she said.

In her opinion, we must recognize that everything we do within our watershed impacts all aspects of the ecosystem. It is, ultimately, part of the essential knowledge of our “sense of place.” The history of the Laguna, the ebb and flow of its pools, the trees where the bald eagles nest - all of this is how we really get to know our community, Fontaine said.

“We can really only understand ourselves when we understand where we live. It adds a richness to our lives that you can’t get anywhere else.”

The next eight-week training session for Laguna guides is May through June with Wednesday evening classes and Saturday field trips. A minimum commitment of five volunteer hours a month is requested and volunteers can choose to focus on any aspect of Laguna that most interests them.

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