Michael Johnson, left, president of Friends of the Grove, talks with Gary Cobb, who was geo-caching in the Grove of the Old Trees, off of Fitzgerald Lane, near Occidental on Tuesday, December 17, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Secluded, cherished grove near Occidental increased to 33 acres

A simple, carved wooden sign frames the gateway to The Grove of the Old Trees. Reached by a pathway off a narrow, rural lane, the ancient stand feels far more remote from civilization than it actually is.

Lush ferns and gnarled old-growth redwoods tower overhead, some perhaps 1,000 years old or older. Human footfalls are muted by a soft bed of needles and wood chips on the trails, voices stilled by the awe-inspiring beauty.

Set apart for more than a century from the heavy logging that cleared large swaths of the region over time, this now-33-acre sanctuary is a hidden gem in the hills just west of Occidental. A recent 5-acre addition from the estate of a Central Coast couple further buffers the grove, which is open to the public, for free, every day of the year.

Neighbors on Fitzpatrick Lane used the grove as an unofficial park for decades before plans to harvest the timber in the 1990s triggered so much resistance it led to permanent protection of the trees. Then-Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly predicted the preserve would serve as "a crown jewel" in the county's open space system when it formally opened to the public in 2000.

But despite its treasured status and rising profile among those who seek out wild places, the redwood grove receives relatively few visitors, largely regular users from the neighborhood and surrounding community, according to nearby residents and those who steward the land.

A small parking area on the side of the road accommodates about six vehicles. It is often empty.

It's a pattern partly lamented and partly lucky circumstance, given the need to balance public enjoyment of the tranquil grove with the imperative to safeguard its fragile ecosystem and ensure the surrounding neighborhood, with its narrow, one-lane road and rural quietude, is not overwhelmed.

"That was kind of the concept, was that it would remain this hidden gem in the neighborhood," said now-Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart, who was instrumental in saving the grove. "The whole point was to preserve the trees forever."

But "every year, more and more people are coming out," said Michael Johnston, a Fitzpatrick Lane resident who is current president of the Friends of the Grove, or FOG. Formed by those who took part in the campaign to block logging in the grove, the group continues to care for the land.

Johnston said he meets visitors from all over while on daily walks and enjoys seeing families strolling through the grove about a half-mile up the road from his house. "Word is getting out," he said.

Fading blue lines used to mark trees slated for logging before neighbors and activists intervened in the mid-1990s are still visible in the grove, a rare stand of ridge-top redwoods that's provided opportunities for ongoing studies on moisture absorption of coastal fog in sword ferns and redwoods.

A looping trail takes visitors past majestic groups of second-growth redwoods and heritage trees that evoke an earlier time, before similar groves were decimated to rebuild quake-ravaged San Francisco and develop Sonoma County. Sunlight filters into the grove despite tree heights reaching 225 feet.

Though purchased in part with public funds, including $1.25 million from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District toward the total $2 million price, The Grove of the Old Trees is owned and stewarded by LandPaths. The nonprofit agency views its mission as connecting and engaging the people with the land of Sonoma County. The Coastal Conservancy and Save the Redwoods League helped fund the purchase, as well.

Continuing stewardship by FOG and other LandPaths supporters, whose labor on work days keeps the trails mulched and the understory clean of wildfire fuel, has given shape to the "people-powered parks" model the organization promotes as a means of preserving access to open space in an age of diminishing parks budgets.

Executive Director Craig Anderson said the support and participation of neighbors in the grove, as with any LandPaths property, is key to the agency's ability to manage a growing inventory of open spaces.

It was neighbors' protective spirit that led to sparing the first- and second-growth trees from logging or future development in recent years.

One of those neighbors, Gary Carmignani, shepherded a bequest by absentee owners, Alan and Gordana Stanchfield, that last year expanded the grove by five acres to create additional ecological buffer for the redwoods. The acquisition was announced in November.

"The Stanchfields loved the place -#8212; wanted their ashes there," Anderson said, "had a trust and wanted to donate the property, along with a small gift to make sure their property was protected, the trees were protected and our grove bigger."

But LandPaths' mission, Anderson said, is one of inclusiveness, of engaging people with the land, and extending the love and appreciation of the county's landscape to all comers.

"We're not really doing our work if we're just appealing to those who want to give us money, those who love redwoods or knew who John Muir was," he said. "Our work is not complete if we're not broadening the spectrum and encouraging more people to use the places that LandPaths both owns and stewards."

The organization hosts an annual grove outing designed for Spanish-speaking families traveling in caravan from LandPaths' Bayer Farm in Santa Rosa's Roseland district. Other programs in the grove include Quigong and meditation, as well as the annual work day/potluck.

Anderson describes it as "a place of intimate beauty."

"To me, it's like a temple," said Sebastopol business consultant Gary Abreim, one of numerous volunteers who steward the land. "Whenever I'm feeling out of sorts, if I go to the grove and just walk in the grove surrounded by so many ancient trees, there's just an experience that I have of well-being, that whatever was going on with me that day sort of clears itself out."

The prospect of increased traffic brings with it some tension about whether newer visitors will understand the need to tread lightly, stay on the trail and take out anything they bring in.

Johnston said he sometimes notices people bagging their dog waste, and then just tossing it on the side of a trail. A pair of geocachers from the Bay Area on a hunt for a secret clue hidden at coordinates well off the trail went crashing through a fern study area a few weeks aback seemingly without any grasp on what that meant for the plantlife.

"I think respectful visitation at the right capacity is key," said Emily Burns, science director for Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco.

"You gotta take the crunchy with the smooth," said Anderson. "You have to walk a line based on inclusivity and principle and wanting to provide something for your people, but at the same time protecting land and protecting private property and neighbors. It's not easy, but it's the job that needs to be done."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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