Trails Council sustains hardy volunteer corps for Sonoma County Regional Parks

Public lands need volunteer stewards, and the Sonoma County Trails Council has acted as a dedicated corps for Regional Parks since its founding 50 years ago.|

If you’ve hiked a newly built or reconstructed trail in one of Sonoma County’s regional parks, there’s a good chance Ken Wells had a hand in it.

Wells, director of the Sonoma County Trails Council, a key partner for the county park agency, is a connoisseur of the grunt work that goes into carving paths for hikers, bikers and horse riders in rugged terrain.

He has been toiling in one capacity or another for the trails group for 25 years, building trails, supervising crews and goading people into volunteering for local parks.

“Most of my work consists of putting people together with projects that need doing,” said Wells, 63.

At one time, such public park maintenance was carried out by government crews - county, state or federal. These days, much of the burden falls on volunteers. And that’s not such a bad thing, said Wells, who thinks that support for regional parks has grown because local people are more heavily invested in stewardship.

Indeed, most if not all of the park trail work in Sonoma County occurs either under the direct auspices or with the support of the Trails Council, which is also marking its 50th anniversary this year. Council crews regularly labor at Helen Putnam and Taylor Mountain Regional Parks, putting in new trail segments and rehabilitating existing ones. Overall, more than 150 miles of trail traverse county parks, with dozens of additional miles planned for existing and future sites.

Since 2013, the group has tallied about 11,000 volunteer work hours at county, state and city parks - donated labor worth about $270,000. And drafting willing workers has grown easier over the years with the rising number of park users and members.

“I have about 900 people on an active email list, and whenever we have a project that requires some workers I send out a notice, and enough people invariably respond,” Wells said. “Plus, hikers are always talking with the crews, asking if they can sign up. People just want to help out their communities.”

Fundraising, of course, is part of Wells’ mandate. He secures support from a variety of means, including membership dues, donations, grants and special events such as the Annadel Half Marathon, which uses trails the group has built in the popular state park.

The Trails Council also supports the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps, a cadre of teenagers, mostly disadvantaged, who are trained in environmental stewardship and earn paychecks repairing trails and working at other outdoor projects during the summer.

“Ongoing protection and maintenance of our public lands depend on citizens who love and are committed to the natural world. And the best way to build those constituencies is to reach people when they’re young,” Wells said.

Wells is convinced the regional parks will thrive in coming decades, but he advises taking the long view.

“When the Sonoma County Open Space District began acquiring land for public parks more than 20 years ago, I thought, ‘Wow, it’s here - we’re going to start building trails everywhere.’ And of course, things didn’t happen overnight. Building and maintaining trails takes patience, persistence and passion. That’s become my personal mantra.”

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