LandPaths executive director Craig Anderson, right, leads a walk to Red Hill from Shell Beach above the mouth of the Russian River.

LandPaths chief wants to connect public to open spaces

Nature lover Craig Anderson is a cheery, accomplished and creative fellow who plays in a band and often rides to work on the long skateboard that his wife, Lee, gave him for his 40th birthday a decade ago.

But the guy's never satisfied.

The land stewardship and outdoors education agency he runs, LandPaths, is busier than ever as it pursues opportunities to take possession of two large pieces of rural Sonoma County land that would expand its holdings to 1,000 acres.

Even as those deals come together, Anderson is thinking ahead. LandPaths hopes to acquire and immerse Sonoma County kids and adults in the wonders of one nature-blessed ranch northeast of Santa Rosa and a second one adjacent to West County's storied Bohemian Grove.

Anderson wants not only for people to explore them, but also to be able to get to them, and to other open spaces throughout the county, without having to get in cars.

He'll be happy, he said at LandPaths' downtown Santa Rosa offices, if "someday, if you wanted to, instead of driving from Carneros to The Sea Ranch, you could walk it."

The trek would involve taking trails and neighborly easements that would connect Sonoma County's constellation of preserved spaces, which include parks, county Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District lands, properties owned or managed by LandPaths, Sonoma Land Trust acquisitions, the private Pepperwood and Bouverie preserves, farms and other open spaces. Farm stands and other welcoming stops might exist along the way.

"It'd be a longer journey" than simply driving, the LandPaths chief said with the same passion that he channels into surfing and music. "But you'll also remember it a lot longer."

Anderson grew up by the beach in greater Los Angeles and believes he lives now in one of the best spots on earth for preserving and sharing natural places. However, many locals have never experienced the wonders of Sonoma County's open lands, he says.

"We live in Luther Burbank's shadows," Anderson said. "This is really a beautiful place, but we don't get our kids out into it nearly enough. That is a deficit we need to correct."

One prized program of the 14-year-old LandPaths is called In Our Own Backyard. Volunteers team up with more than 1,000 local school kids, many of whom rarely venture beyond low-income neighborhoods, and introduce them to land preserved by the Open Space District, Sonoma Land Trust, the Laguna Foundation and Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Students visit the land four times in a year and learn about watersheds, habitat and such, and they can "adopt" a particular tree or other natural feature.

"They get to know that place," said Anderson, the father of Kai, 9, and Iris, 6.

LandPaths also partners with Santa Rosa at the Roseland area's Bayer Farm Neighborhood Park and Gardens and creates opportunities for children and adults to hike, explore and perform stewardship work such as removing non-native plants and planting native ones at the preserves that it owns or manages.

"We provide people with exceptional experiences to engage with the land where they live," Anderson said.

Imbued naturally with the energy of a kid on a campout, he's especially excited these days about two land acquisitions that LandPaths is pursuing with some of its open-space partners.

Ranchero Mark West is a 120-acre haven on St. Helena Road that owners Jim and Betty Doerksen have shared with perhaps 300,000 school children and other visitors over the past 45 years. Anderson one day looked his 72-year-old friend Jim Doerksen in the eye and asked, "Jim, what are you going to do with the ranch?"

They agreed it would be a good idea for the couple to sell the property to LandPaths for the bargain price of $1 million while allowing the couple to remain there for the rest of their lives.

LandPaths has received a $750,000 grant from the state Coastal Conservancy and is working on raising the rest of the money it needs for the purchase. Anderson and LandPaths envision making the historic creekside property into a privately owned but publicly accessible close-to-town nature center.

He's also stoked by a deal that LandPaths, Sonoma Land Trust and other partners is pursuing with Ted and Phyllis Swindells, the owners of an 860-acre ranch that runs along west county's Bohemian Highway and adjoins the Bohemian Club of San Francisco's Bohemian Grove and the Westminster Woods youth camp.

The proposal is that the Swindells would donate to LandPaths 550 acres that the organization would open up as a nature preserve.

"It's pretty amazing, in this era of shrinking parks budgets, for this to happen," Anderson said, nearly unable to contain his anticipation. If one day the Bohemian property awes visitors who walked from across the county, the poor man will be beside himself.

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