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STEWARDS OF THE COAST AND ITS CREATURES

Bea Brunn spends just about every Saturday afternoon from January to April

scanning the Pacific off of Bodega Head, looking for whales.

Last month, she traveled to Baja California to watch whales mate and calve

in the warm lagoons that are their winter home. She watched the giant mammals

swim right under her skiff.

''My husband finally said, 'I've had enough of whales,''' she says,

laughing. ''But not me. I'll never get enough.''

That's good news, because Brunn doesn't keep her knowledge and enthusiasm

to herself. She's out there at the coast every weekend, waiting to share a

story or a pair of binoculars with anyone who shares her interest in whales.

Brunn is one of the ''Stewards of Slavianka,'' a group of some 250

volunteers who give their time so others can better enjoy the state parks of

the Sonoma Coast.

It started with the concerns of one woman, worried about how wastewater in

the Russian River would affect the seals that feed on fish in the estuary at

Jenner.

Eleven years later, the organization still cares for the seals, but also

has evolved into a partner that helps the state of California maintain and

operate parks visited each year by tens of thousands of people.

Stewards of Slavianka ''does things (for the park system) that we can't do

ourselves any more,'' says Rick Royer, a ranger for the state parks

department's Russian River District.

If you've ever been handed a pair of binoculars by a whale-watching

stranger at Bodega Head, or if you've walked a well-maintained path beneath

the redwoods at Armstrong Grove, or if a guide has helped your children

explore the tidepools at Salt Point, it's likely you've met one of the

Stewards.

''A lot of the programs that visitors have become accustomed to wouldn't be

happening without them,'' Royer says.

The group traces its roots to the spring of 1985, just after the city of

Santa Rosa illegally released hundreds of millions of gallons of treated

wastewater into the Russian River. Dian Hardy, then a budding animal-rights

activist, wondered how the pollution would impact the seals at the river's

mouth.

What she found, Hardy recalls, is that the wastewater apparently didn't

disturb the marine mammals. But while watching the seal colony, she saw that

human visitors and their dogs certainly did impact the seals by approaching

close enough to chase them into the sea.

Hardy and a few friends started ''Seal Watch'' -- spending weekends on the

beach, keeping the curious from getting too close to the seals and their pups.

Within a couple of months they had forged an alliance with area park rangers,

and in May 1985 the group became an official state parks ''cooperating

association'' during a meeting at the Jenner Playhouse.

''We were a ragtag band of activists doing our thing on state park land,''

says Hardy. ''It turned out that we wanted the same thing they did.''

Stewards of Slavianka, which takes its name from the original Russian name

of the Russian River, now boasts some 250 volunteers and two paid, part-time

staff members. Its annual budget is more than $76,000, according to board

president Lanny Keyston.

Seal Watch, the original reason for the Stewards, still exists. From March

through September, volunteers spend weekends at Goat Rock State Beach,

protecting new pups and providing information to visitors. But there's more:

Whale Watch -- Each weekend from January to April, volunteers stand watch

at Bodega Head- the most popular whale-watching spot on the coast. Stewards

not only will help you find the elusive mammals as they migrate past Sonoma

County, but they'll tell you why the whales migrate, where they go, where they

come from, what they eat and other fascinating facts.

Friends of Armstrong Redwoods -- The Stewards financed the park's visitor

center and keep it open year 'round. They help maintain trails, conduct

research and build exhibits. Volunteers like Pauline Gilbert, who was there at

the meeting at which Stewards was founded and now is at the park almost every

day, lead interpretive walks under the redwoods.

Salt Point State Park -Stewards of Slavianka provided the money to open the

visitor center at Gerstle Cove in 1992, and provides the manpower to keep it

open on weekends from April to November. Volunteers like Sue Plummer lead

nature walks, organize junior ranger programs for kids staying at the

campgrounds and host tidepooling expeditions.

Sonoma Coast State Beach -- Campfire programs and junior ranger activities

probably wouldn't be available without the Stewards of Slavianka, Royer says.

Royer says that despite increasingly tighter budgets for the state's

Department of Parks and Recreation, the Stewards have enabled his district to

''really make dramatic increases in our programs'' in the last 10 years.

The group would like to do more- there are ''15 or 20 projects'' on the

drawing board right now, Royer says. But while the Stewards are rich in

volunteers, they would need at least $100,000 to do that work. Fund-raising is

an ongoing project.

To find out more about the Stewards, or to get information about training

for new volunteers, call 869-9177.

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