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Sonoma County’s Steelhead Beach deemed environmental ‘hot spot,’ public cleanup set for Thursday

A national organization dedicated to sustainable outdoor exploration has designated Steelhead Beach Regional Park in Forestville a 2022 “hot spot,” a designation used for places that are “being loved to death.”

“People bring their inflatable floats and they just leave them on the beach,” said Sonoma County Regional Parks Marketing Specialist Sarah Phelps. “So, a lot of trash and traffic impacts is really what we see at Steelhead, and that’s primarily in the summer.”

The Russian River’s popularity is not new, but its use skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the summers of 2020 and 2021. And along with more people came more trash.

To bring attention to the litter and traffic problems, Regional Parks is partnering with the national Leave No Trace organization for a week of training and cleanups at Steelhead Beach Regional Park, from Aug. 3-8.

“A hot spot under the Leave No Trace definition is a place that’s being loved to death,” Phelps said, “and so Steelhead fit that bill pretty well.”

Members of the public are encouraged to help the effort on Aug. 4. Volunteers will meet at Steelhead Beach and Sunset Beach to pick up litter from 9 a.m. — 12 p.m. For those who’d rather clean by kayak, they can launch at Steelhead Beach and float down to Sunset Beach, returning via shuttle. Reserve a kayak though Regional Parks or bring your own.

Although the partnership between Regional Parks and Leave No Trace is a one-week event, Phelps urges members of the public to visit parks responsibly. And she’d really like to see fewer floats decked out in glitter.

“When it’s these little, tiny pieces that are plastic-based, the volunteers will spend the whole time just like sitting there sifting through gravel to pick them up,” she said. “So it’s really hard to get all of that. And if you don’t take it out of the river, eventually it’s going to find its way somewhere else.”

Hattie Brown, Natural Resources Manager for Regional Parks, said another issue is food waste, which finds its way into the diets of foxes, raccoons, seagulls, ravens, and other wildlife.

“We definitely see routine evidence of that happening,” Brown said. “It’s detrimental to the wildlife themselves and also potentially increases human-wildlife conflict when wild animals become used to scavenging for food that’s not a regular part of their diet.”

Sonoma County Tourism, another partner in the river cleanup, is trying to use targeted messaging to reduce the carbon footprint and environmental impacts of Russian River visitors.

“A responsible traveler is someone who protects nature and is interacting with locals, and they’re informed before they get here, and they’re concerned about their [carbon] footprint,” said Kelly Bass Seibel, Vice President of Community Engagement at Sonoma County Tourism. “(We’re) very focused on that responsible traveler and hope that is going to correlate to the type of visitor that these parks see.”

In the spirit of Leave No Trace, Seibel asks that visitors “leave it better than they found it.”

For more information on how to volunteer with Regional Parks, go to parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/learn/support.

You can reach Staff Writer Elena Neale-Sacks at elena.neale-sacks@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @elenaneale17.

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