Sonoma Land Trust donation doubles size of Tolay Lake Regional Park

Sonoma Land Trust donated 1,600 adjoining acres to Tolay Lake Regional Park, which is expected to open to the general public by the end of this year.|

Tolay Lake Regional Park doubled in size Friday with the gift of an adjoining 1,665-acre protected ranch from the Sonoma Land Trust, a transfer envisioned for years and coming less than a year before the expansive, grass-covered preserve is set to open to the general public.

The expanded park, the largest in the county network, at 3,402 acres, now encompasses nearly all of the Tolay Creek watershed, which overlooks and drains into San Pablo Bay.

On a bright morning this week before the transfer, a group of county park and Sonoma Land Trust officials gathered on a ridge with views across the water to San Francisco and discussed the land’s rich history and plans for the future. The park is situated just northwest of Sonoma Raceway and now borders Highway 121.

“As much as I love this property, I’m confident that it is in good hands,” said Bob Neale, stewardship director for the nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust, which acquired the property from the Roche family in 2007 and oversaw subsequent habitat restoration efforts.

Dozens of cows grazed on a hilltop, leaving the wildflowers - Fremont’s star lilies - in favor of lush green grass. Several coyotes scampered in and out of sight, apparently on a hunt for a mid-morning snack.

When the land trust purchased the property, a subdivision and vineyard had been proposed. Now the rolling hills will remain public and undeveloped, maintaining a wildlife corridor that runs from Sonoma Mountain to San Pablo Bay.

“This park will also help preserve the agricultural history of the land,” said Regional Parks natural resources manager Melanie Parker as she stepped to avoid cow patties in her path.

The pasture here, grazed since early Spanish and European settlers arrived more than two centuries ago, will continue to support cattle, which will remain part of the landscape in the regional park, Parker said.

But the cultural history of the land predates the arrival of livestock and Europeans by millennia.

“Tolay Lake was a sacred healing place. Not only for local Indians, but people came from all over to visit the lake,” said Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. The park’s eponymous lakebed contains “charm stones” and arrowheads deposited by native people who brought them to the area from hundreds of miles away.

To help preserve the land and the history, the tribe gave $500,000 to the county to help with the costs of the master plan and environmental impact report. Sarris said his tribe will continue to partner with the regional parks as the preserve is opened and improved for general access, making sure sacred sites are protected and the public is educated.

Petaluma, which has the 216-acre Helen Putnam Regional Park on the west side of town, has long awaited the addition of a second county park serving the area. The county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District acquired the original park acreage from the Cardoza family in 2005 for ?$18 million. The open space has been used for guided tours, school events and the popular Tolay Fall Festival. It has been accessible to individuals on weekends since 2009 by special permit.

“I think the initial purchase would have been a great regional park itself, but this addition makes it even better,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the area. “It’s a very unique environment and a very special place.”

Back on the newly transferred property, dubbed Tolay Creek Ranch, Neale pointed out restored creekside habitat, with more than 4,000 trees planted by 1,000 local students. Part of the aim is to make the ecosystem more resilient in the face of a rapidly changing climate, Parker said.

The pasture around her, parched and brown at times during the state’s long drought, had been restored to a vivid green by wave after wave of winter storms.

Public comment on the master plan for Tolay Lake Regional Park ended Feb. 23. Once that feedback is addressed, the plan and EIR will be brought to the Board of Supervisors for approval. Karen Davis-Brown, a regional parks planner who is managing the project, is hopeful that step occurs by late spring.

The path to make the park fully public has been a long one, she acknowledged.

“This is a very complicated property and we left no stone unturned,” Davis-Brown said, noting the site’s environmental sensitivity and cultural importance.

The master plan calls for 10 miles of hiking trails, 22 miles of multiuse trails that can handle equestrians and bikers, a visitor center and other amenities. Much of that work will come in the years ahead, at a cost of millions of dollars.

In the meantime, county officials are pushing to open the park seven days a week by the end of 2017.

“We’re hoping to make it happen this year,” Rabbitt said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or

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