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Sonoma County trail runner visits 55 parks in 55 days

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From the boat ramp at Hudeman Slough near Skaggs Island on the southeastern tip of Sonoma County, it’s about a three-hour drive to the sandy beach at Gualala Point, up on the northern county line.

But it still took Justin Borton, a local trail runner and park enthusiast, 55 days to make the trip — mainly because he stopped along the way at every one of the parks, beaches, campgrounds, and properties in the Sonoma Regional Parks system, 55 in all.

His marathon park-a-day odyssey, just completed in mid-September, was launched with a commitment to raise public awareness.

He set off in mid-July, juggling work and family obligations, with the goal of visiting a new park each day.

“I issued myself a personal challenge to visit all 55 Sonoma County Regional Parks in 55 days, to highlight our county’s wonderful and fragile relationship with nature, and the need to address the climate crisis now.”

A father of four children, Borton grew up in Sonoma County, enjoying what it has to offer, from green canyons and deep forest shade, to sun-struck mountain slopes and fog shrouded beaches.

But without our Parks, he says, that cross-section of nature would be inaccessible to the people who live here. The public’s access to nature, he says, and nature itself, is under threat.

“Access to nature is not a given,” Borton notes. “It takes vision and effort to create parks and maintain open spaces.”

The Hudeman Slough property is a good example. The small boat launch is a unique and nearly hidden gateway for paddlers, with rare public access to the wandering tidal waterways that link to San Pablo Bay. But the existing boat ramp and dock are currently closed, and scheduled for demolition. When funds are available, a new ramp will be installed with an (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible kayak launching dock, a permanent restroom building, and six primitive campsites.

It’s one of the many deferred maintenance and upgrade projects on the Regional Parks’ worklist.

Borton, who works locally in sales, became a serious park advocate after discovering the health benefits of trail running, something he now regularly pursues with enthusiasm.

Early every Tuesday morning, he’s out with a small dedicated group, climbing Taylor Mountain.

His personal interest in the local parks took a turn with the devastating fires in 2017.

“I watched from the window of my work while the fires burned through our beloved parks.“

To aid with their recovery, and raise money to rebuild fire damaged parks and trails, Borton organized friends into 13 teams of #SonomaStrong trail runners.

“We succeeded in raising over $17,000 for the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation wildfire recovery fund.”

Borton was also an organizer with the successful Measure M parks initiative, which will start to provide resources to address the backlog of Park maintenance, protect natural resources and expand public access.

Last year he joined the Board of Directors of the Regional Parks Foundation.

Local residents, Borton suspects, are probably not familiar with all 55 of the properties in the Regional Parks system. He wasn’t.

One of them isn’t even a park, he notes. The Community Center in Occidental, he discovered, is a 3,700-square-foot auditorium/multipurpose gymnasium with a stage. It hosts youth and adult sports and recreation classes, and a youth camp in the summer.

One of his most memorable stops was at Andy Lopez Unity Park in southwest Santa Rosa, a 4-acre community space constructed in memory of the 13 year-old Lopez who was tragically shot on the undeveloped site in 2013. Today the grounds include a large natural turf field, community garden, dog park, basketball court, skate plaza and playground. There are also picnic and gathering spaces, pathways and natural spaces.

“It’s a gem,” Borton says, “with a beautiful, heartfelt memorial, community gardens, and walks. You get a clear sense of how parks can provide a space for communities to come together.”

Sonoma County’s parks are like traveling the world, he says, with rivers, ocean vistas, wine, redwoods and mountains. Our parks provide solace, peace, happiness and health benefits.

“But I’m really concerned about losing our natural spaces,” Justin says. “Most people are busy with work and family. But parks don’t maintain or build themselves. They require ongoing labor, lots of effort by staff and volunteers.”

“They still need support,” he wants to remind the community. ”And nature is fragile.”

He hit on the idea of drumming up attention for them by visiting every one. It turned out to be an eye-opening experience.

At the coastal Gualala Point Park, he marveled at the cluster of tall, elaborately hand-carved ceremonial wooden posts, sent from northeastern Russia, on a meadow high above the mouth of the Gualala River. The park offers long beach stretches, as well as displays detailing native culture and history in the region.

In August he stepped into the county’s smallest regional park, Moran Goodman, a neighborhood pocket with a small playground, swings and slide, picnic tables, a barbecue grill and lawn, in a residential area south of the village of Glen Ellen.

Up north Borton discovered Soda Springs Reserve, about 10 miles east of Sea Ranch in the tiny community of Annapolis. Paths wind through giant redwoods and along Soda Springs Creek. Before becoming a Regional Park, the 48-acre reserve was a natural destination for locals, first homesteaded in the 1880s and operated as Soda Springs Campground.

And then, 54 days into his marathon tour, Justin arrived at his final and 55th Park, the new and not-yet-open to the public Mark West Springs Park and Preserve, off Porter Creek road, just 15 miles west of Santa Rosa.

The 1,200-acre future park spreads trails along the flowing waters of Mark West Creek, where Porter Creek joins it. The trails wind up and along surrounding ridges, through wide open meadows, into oak groves and past rolling grass-covered hillsides. The deep shade along the creek beds is welcome relief from the hot sun on the exposed highlands, which open to views of the rugged Mayacamas Mountains to the east, and north to the sentinel peak of Mount St. Helena. Vistas also open west to the Russian River valley and the Santa Rosa Plain.

Fire swept through the watershed in 2017, and a layer of black ash can still be seen along some of the newly cut trail.

But 10-foot-high madrone shoots have already risen around the blackened trunks of the old forest with bright, broad leaves.

Where the fire ran quickly through, the surviving redwoods have already pushed out shoots, like green fur, high above singed and charred bark.

Elsewhere, there’s no evidence of fire, and the oak groves, toyon and ferns appear untouched.

Mark West Springs is special, because the watershed flows year-round. That’s essential for migrating steelhead and salmon, which swim all the way from the coast to breed here in the mountains. The young fish need pools to survive the hot, dry summer, before winter rains give them the chance to head down to the sea.

The Mark West park is also a key property because it’s a link to nearly 4,300 acres of habitat essential for wildlife.

“From Gualala to Sonoma, Sonoma County has some of the best trails, swimming and access to nature in the world,” Borton wrote, in his note to explain his decision to visit all the parks.

“I believe we have a right to access the great outdoors. And I don’t ever want to see that right taken from me again because we didn’t do enough to stop climate change. For my children, for Sonoma County, and before the next mega fire, which I hope never comes.”

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com.

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