A land for learning

It's not a park, but volunteers, researchers and artists can partake of the wonders of the Fairfield Osborn Preserve near Penngrove, a 450-acre property owned and managed by Sonoma State University.|

A walkabout at the Fairfield Osborn Preserve can be about many things.

Suzanne DeCoursey, who leads tours of the 450-acre preserve owned and managed by Sonoma State University, loves to point out the intriguing features a visitor might never notice. Maybe it is an historic artifact like the rock wall near the Education and Research Center, half obscured within the landscape. The low, knee-high pile of stones was laid by the first white settlers back in the 1850s.

'That is a section line, put up because it was a property marker,' says DeCoursey, the education and reservations manager for this outdoor laboratory and research preserve on the northwest flank of Sonoma Mountain, which was set aside for students, faculty, schoolchildren and members of the public for scientific and creative inquiry.

Several yards away, she pauses to point out a ragged clump of tall grass, California fescue.

'Very few people realize this. But these grasses can grow to be over 200 years old. So as you walk past this grass,' she says, 'realize that it will probably outlive you, your grandchildren and even your great-grandchildren. So treat it with respect.'

Fairfield Osborn is a place of small and large wonders, like the giant 'mole track,' an extrusion of rock paste extending like a low ridge down from the Visitor's Center to the perennial Copeland Creek. It's unclear if it was caused by landslides or tectonic activity, but geologists believe it is the largest 'mole track' in the country.

A walk around the preserve, 10 minutes and a world away from Rohnert Park, also compels careful notice of the small pinkish flags tucked into the ground, each marking the site of a research study or experiment.

Notice the little silver mailbox structures in which UC Berkeley is testing the aerial transmission of the pathogen that causes Sudden Oak Death.

Or look up from the parking lot at the weather data collection stations where electrical engineering students are engaged in trying to understand the real-world challenges in monitoring the environment and climate change.

Although it's been in existence as a preserve for more than 40 years, Fairfield Osborn has remained well under the radar compared to many open-space areas in public ownership.

But DeCoursey and Claudia Luke, the director of Fairfield Osborn, want people to know that while it is not a park available for recreational use, there are ways to get to know this wild site whose riches were first discovered by man — The Coast Miwoks — 2,000 years ago.

Members of the public can sign up for a guided hike (scheduled this fall on select Saturdays in October and November), train to become a naturalist who leads hikes, or become part of a team of stewards who care for the land. There are also periodic work parties.

The preserve is available as well to groups with an educational mission, from schools to scouting troops and even special-interest clubs and groups, from native plant lovers to birders.

'As long as you have some kind of educational mission and you're trying to learn something,' says Luke, 'you're welcome.'

Even private individuals are invited to apply to use the preserve for their own research or creative project.

Since taking over the helm at the preserve, Luke, who has a doctorate in zoology with specialty in reptiles and amphibians, has been working to bring people together from different disciplines to collaborate in surprising ways.

Last fall the preserve was the focal point for Soundscapes, a cross-disciplinary project aimed at increasing awareness about the changing natural landscape through sound and 'the music of mother nature.'

With training from bio-acoustics expert Dr. Bernie Krause of Glen Ellen, well-known for his recordings of nature sounds, environmental studies students recorded a diversity of natural and man-made sounds at the preserve.

The recordings were archived and edited by engineering students into a sound library. Sebastopol composer Jesse Olsen Bay was then commissioned to create a score from the diversity of sounds. Choreographers created an interpretive dance that was performed at the university in November and December.

The project is funded with help from the Sonoma County Community Foundation.

Students also are engaged in real world research through the Waters Collaborative, a project with the Sonoma County Water Agency. Faculty and students are collecting data to answer questions the agency wants answered about the upper watershed of the Russian River.

The preserve is the legacy of William and Joan Roth, both nature lovers, who bought the land in the 1950s as a rustic summer retreat for their family.

The maternal grandson of a shipping magnate, William came of age at the famed Filoli estate in Woodside and was a social progressive, serving as a trade ambassador for John F. Kennedy and founding the Ploughshares Fund, which advocated the elimination of nuclear weapons.

He lost to Jerry Brown in the hotly contested Democratic primary for governor in 1974.

He and Joan donated the first 200 acres to The Nature Conservancy back in the early 1970s as a memorial to Joan's father, Fairfield Osborn, a conservationist and early environmentalist who sounded ecological alarms back in 1948 with his book, 'Our Plundered Planet,' a critique of human stewardship of the earth's natural resources.

The Nature Conservancy turned over stewardship of the preserve to Sonoma State in 1997.

Ten years ago, the couple donated an additional 190 acres, while holding on to a treasured 40 acres near the ridge known to the family as 'The Pig Field,' where they would go for picnics and to observe wildlife.

The site carries a 'forever wild' conservation easement with the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District to prevent future development.

But late last year as one of his final acts, William Roth, Joan and their three adult daughters completed the family's legacy by arranging for that last acreage to be gifted to Sonoma State. He died less than a year later, in May, at his home in Petaluma.

Luke said that receiving that final gift of land is significant in many ways. It is home to a stand of old Douglas Fir, nesting habitat for golden eagles.

Also, attached to that parcel was an access easement that essentially would have given any future owner permission to built a road to it across the preserve, she explained.

In addition, the land also helps maintain a critical regional habitat corridor for ranging animals like mountain lions, a corridor that stretches from the Blue Ridge mountains east of Lake Berryessa to Pt. Reyes.

'That parcel really assures the protection of our preserve,' Luke said.

'When you look at the legacy of the Roths, it's amazing.

'They've been so generous in their vision and what they're leaving for everybody to share.'

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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