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Sonoma County nonprofit LandPaths finds ways to connect people online to nature

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Last March, within days of a statewide pandemic shutdown, LandPaths suddenly lost more than $600,000 in contracts and grants, roughly a third of its annual budget.

For the past 24 years, the innovative environmental nonprofit has been devoted to connecting people with nature through adventurous outings and educational programs on a handful of sprawling preserves throughout Sonoma County. But while people were sheltering at home, it was hard to make that happen.

“Literally, the dollars dried up immediately,” executive director Craig Anderson said. “We understood. There was no quibbling about it. There was no argument.”

Many of the contracts were with schools in Santa Rosa and west county districts. One of the first calls came from Healdsburg city officials, regarding a $120,000 grant to manage Fitch Mountain and Healdsburg Ridge.

“They called and said, ‘We have no tourism dollars, we can’t keep this contract,’” said LandPaths’ programs director Lee Hackeling, who is also Anderson’s wife. “We flipped that and immediately started realizing it’s our donor base was going to be the best source of helping us through this time.”

The primary goal was to keep everyone employed, which is no small task with a staff of 19.

“We began talking to funders about how we needed to change our funding and would they change with us,” Hackeling said. “Normally our plea is about getting kids outside and how many kids we serve. And our plea became keeping people employed and how important that is in terms of our impact.”

After multiple meetings, prospective donors were very responsive. In June, someone made a $200,000 matching pledge annually for three years.

They were also able to tap into a portion of the roughly $700,000 in reserve funding to continue stewarding LandPaths properties, including Rancho Mark West, Bohemia Ecological Preserve, Bayer Farm, Ocean Song, Grove of the Redwoods and Riddell Preserve.

In April, Santa Rosa-based LandPaths received more than $2.4 million from the state’s Proposition 1 Watershed Restoration Grant Program that allowed them to nearly double the size of the recently acquired Ocean Song preserve west of Occidental and connect to 5,000 acres of open space along the Sonoma Coast.

While a huge success, it meant they now needed to raise an additional $1.5 million by the end of the year to complete the acquisition of the final 373 acres from private landowners. LandPaths was close to a deal with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria that would have helped bridge the gap but, when the federation’s Graton Casino closed temporarily because of the pandemic, the deal faltered. They were able to raise the money from a group of mostly west county citizens and landowners “who have a strong attachment to that landscape in particular,” Hackeling said. “It’s not quite a cult, but Ocean Song definitely has a following.”

But, beyond funding gaps and donor pleas, the restless LandPaths staff regrouped on a very human level and came up with creative ways to reach out and connect with students during a time of social distancing and remote learning. Before the pandemic, LandPaths was partnering with 16 elementary schools and 10 teen groups from middle schools and high schools.

“We just knew we needed to experiment with ways to keep them involved,” said Jamie Nakama, the organization’s youth programs manager.

The group began by taking the popular In Our Own Back Yard program online and creating an engaging series of YouTube videos to inspire kids to continue exploring their backyards or nearby local parks. Lessons taught children to use their observations skills and learn more about animal habitats. Using nature reflections, they encouraged journaling to keep kids in touch with their feelings during the pandemic.

“Then we started exploring, how can we bring nature to them?” Nakama said. LandPaths staff created multimedia Zoom lessons, with part of the team out in the field at Ocean Song and Bayer Farm, streaming live video of salamanders, frogs and dragonfly nymphs.

For an organization whose entire purpose is inspiring people to get out of the house, devoting so much time to online pursuits would have been sacrilege a year ago.

“We now have all these new online skills,” Hackeling said. “Where they’ll play out, we don’t know, because our whole purpose is to get people outside. We were definitely an organization that had a negative impression of anything online and it was against our mission. But now, we realize, OK, it’s not all bad. We need to be more open to how it can facilitate our mission.”

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By summer, they had done enough research on cohort models to create pods of no more than 10 kids and hold summer camps for 12 weeks. They made hands-free handwashing stations and stationed them around the preserves. A volunteer created a wooden vulture sculpture out of plywood, painted with a 6-foot wingspan to help kids visualize social distancing.

In the fall, they created new programs called Creative Arts and Gardening Afterschool, Nourished by Nature and Eco Teen Adventures, all while maintaining socially distant pods and inspiring kids to get outdoors.

“Parents were so thankful, almost near tears telling us stories about how much their kids struggled and how much it meant for them to get outside and, at a distance, interact with their peers,” Nakama said.

In the same way that the pandemic magnified political divisions and the gap between the rich and the poor, it also amplified the primal need to get out into nature after extreme isolation from sheltering at home.

“I call it, ‘The Great Thirst,’” said Anderson, building on the title of the Norris Hundley Jr. book about the history of water in California. “The Great Thirst for people needing nature and demonstrating that, throughout the entire region with parking lot after parking lot overflowing. And not just parks, but seemingly any roadside space where people could find solace and fresh air and a view, a place for their kids to touch grass and see trees within 10 yards of a parked car.”

If there’s any silver lining, he said, it’s in what we learn along the way.

“For me, it can’t be something where we say, ‘Oh, I wish that never happened’ or ‘Let’s forget about that.’ No. It’s part of our life. It’s like the scar on my arm that reminds me of this really great paddle trip I took in my 20s down Gray and Desolation canyons in Utah,” Anderson said. “So, if we at LandPaths don’t use the pandemic for what it has to teach us about our work and what the community needs, then we’re not availing ourselves of what utility can come from the experience.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story inadvertently named an anonymous donor to nonprofit LandPaths.

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