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Nature-minded rally to support fire-damaged Pepperwood Preserve and Bouverie

Driving up Pepperwood Preserve Road outside Santa Rosa is an eerie experience since the October fires. Evening mist settles on the old barn site, now a vacant, charred piece of ground. Deer wander the ashy roadside among skeletal remains of trees.

The bleak appearance of the entrance, where the preserve burned hottest during the Tubbs fire, doesn’t darken the bright mood inside the Dwight Center for Conservation Science, however. In this bunker of a building, which survived the Tubbs fire intact despite a severe burning over, the message is optimistic.

As Lisa Micheli, Pepperwood’s president and CEO, said in her annual State of Pepperwood address, “the value of these 3,200 acres became extremely evident in this huge event. Not only is this a living laboratory, where we’ve collected a large, prefire data set on climate, water and wildlife, it’s also a place where we’ve done controlled burns and firefighters can set breaks and do controlled burns to help slow wildfire. A neighborhood full of houses contains far more fuel per square foot and burns faster. Nearly all the fire containment done by emergency responders this fall took place in the county’s open spaces.”

Julie Bartice, Pepperwood’s development director, said she reached out to members after the fires “just to find out how people were doing.” Many had lost homes and loved ones; though devastated, people still expressed concern for wildlife and natural areas.

“From that concern, support has been pouring in to keep Pepperwood going,” Bartice said, “and the generosity keeps flowing.” Year-end donations are at $437,000 and counting, more than twice those in 2016, previously a record giving year. First-time year-end donors jumped from 55 to 146, and volunteers have stepped up to help fortify Pepperwood’s research and communication needs as staff members scramble to get back up and running.

In Glen Ellen, the 550-acre Bouverie Preserve managed by Audubon Canyon Ranch also suffered great losses and remains closed.

“The destruction of infrastructure has taken an emotional toll on our staff, volunteers and supporters,” said Wendy Coy, Bouverie’s communications manager. “By contrast, what we’re seeing on the land is incredibly heartening. Native bulbs carpeting our burned chaparral areas. New sprouts of rose, hazelnut, redwood, oaks, and madrone throughout the preserve.”

Prescribed burns conducted at Bouverie by Sasha Berleman helped slow the fire as it crossed the preserve. The effects were so dramatic and potentially helpful to future fire readiness that Berleman is helping to lead a regionwide, “all-hands, all-lands” areawide fire preparedness program.

With community support, Bouverie is rebuilding its mountain lion research project, offering its 22-week docent training at alternate venues throughout the valley and preparing for students to arrive back on the land.

Naomi Sultana Young, Audubon Canyon Ranch director of philanthropy, said, “Across all donors - individual, foundation and corporate funders - we saw a 55 percent increase of online gifts and 58 percent increase in giving. By this time last year, we had raised just under $310,000. During the same time this year, we have raised just under $750,000, a significant portion of that increase was driven by fire-inspired generosity, we believe.”

John Roney, park manager at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, has seen similar generosity.

“When the park closed because of the Nuns fire, there were no longer any entrance fees to pay staff salaries,” he said.

A Dec. 6 event at Landmark Winery raised $10,000, enough to keep staff working to reopen the park.

“Another $7,000 or so has come in through the Sugarloaf website, and people are still giving. We’ve seen about double the response over our last year-end appeal.”

With those funds, a California State Park Foundation Grant and support from Rotary of Sonoma Valley and other organizations, Sugarloaf staff are working hard to reopen. “We’ve cleared trails, removed hazard trees and assessed losses in bridges, retaining walls and wooden steps,” Roney said.

And the park has a new look.

“The color palette is stunning up here now. The grassy areas are greening up and are really quite beautiful. The dead trees are showing fall colors, contrasting with the black areas,” Roney said.

Visitors may have a chance to see the visual feast themselves in limited areas of Sugarloaf that are opening Feb. 1.

County Regional Parks played an unforeseen role during the fires: Evacuees fled to coastal units, particularly Doran Beach, to get out of harm’s way and breathe cleaner air. Given the damage in other regional parks - particularly Shiloh Regional Park in Windsor, Sonoma Valley Regional Park in Glen Ellen and Hood Mountain near Kenwood - the nonprofit fundraising partner of Regional Parks got busy right away.

Susan Bryer-Shelton, fund development associate with the Sonoma County Parks Foundation, said “within a week of understanding the nature of the fire, we set up a Fire Recovery Fund on our webpage. We’ve had an extraordinary response. Right away the fund went from a small amount of seed money to $88,000. Now we’re closer to $145,000, from 900 individual donors.”

The badly needed funds will go to control erosion, shore up trail systems, rebuild infrastructure such as bridges and buildings, and help identify and reduce potential fire hazards and thick, flammable understory and canopy that can fuel fires.

Not all needs are on the ground. Bryer-Shelton said, “Some of the money will go to community engagement, to bring people of all ages and abilities into the parks to find solace in healing nature once we are safely reopened.”

Similarly, Pepperwood is revising its educational programming. Grade school students who will return next month will see firsthand the effects of fire in wild nature. Bartice said, “Our hope is that an increased fire ecology focus will help them deal with some of the traumas they’ve also perhaps personally experienced.”

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