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JENNER - A spit of sand at the mouth of the Russian River where hundreds of harbor seals have entered life will soon be dotted with mothers and their newborn pups as birthing season gets under way.

Watching over them will be human volunteers who, for three decades, have devoted their time to protecting harbor seals on the beach from throngs of weekend visitors whose enthusiasm for the coast, its ocean vistas and its wildlife can put at risk the pups and the larger seal population of up to 300.

Cobbled together by a few stalwart folks in 1985 to reinforce the efforts of state park rangers stretched thin along 14 miles of Sonoma Coast State Park, the Seal Watch program helped usher in an era of volunteerism that has sustained and enhanced state parks in Sonoma County ever since.

It started as a focused campaign to educate the public about the need to give the seals their space and has blossomed into a large, multi-faceted nonprofit organization whose contributions can be found throughout the beaches, neighboring watersheds and forests that make up the park system’s Russian River Sector.

From trail repair to tide pool tours, stream bed restoration to bird surveys, the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods provides it, relying on its base of about 350 volunteers and partnering with myriad public and nonprofit agencies aligned with preserving park lands and increasing human engagement with them.

“It’s a great program, and it has really expanded its reach,” said Andrea Pecharich, an environmental specialist with the Sonoma County Water Agency, one such collaborator.

Wide reach

The Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods is one of 87 nonprofit organizations registered as California State Park “cooperating agencies,” and has harnessed tens of thousands of volunteer hours over the years. Its work in the early years was supported through camp firewood sales and donations, Executive Director Michele Luna said.

As it celebrates 30 years of service, the Stewards now boasts an annual budget of $700,000 and a paid staff of nine, working out of a classic New Deal-era camp building at the rear of the Armstrong Grove.

It runs visitor centers on the coast at Jenner and at Armstrong Woods, organizes hikes, work days, wildlife monitoring programs and docent tours on topics like tracking wildlife, edible plants and coastal geography.

The Stewards was the fiscal agent for a more than $1 million, 10-year project to restore the Willow Creek channel and fish passage on state park land.

In 2009, it contracted with the Sonoma County Water Agency to monitor harbor seals and other pinnipeds at the Russian River mouth, documenting any population and behavioral shifts in a new era of estuary management required by federal fisheries officials.

And in 2012, during dire days for California parks, it stepped in to handle fee collections at Armstrong Grove and assume full operations of adjoining Austin Creek State Recreation Area, saving it from closure.

The group also added an online reservation system to the park last year, raising camping revenues by more than 90 percent, Luna said.

“We’re definitely happy to have them,” said Russian River Sector Superintendent Mike Lair. “We couldn’t do it alone, obviously, and they’ve been really good to work with.”

Seminal moment

A sparkling sea greets visitors in Jenner, a small village perched on the edge of the estuary, where the lumbering river, wide as it curves around the north side of Goat Rock Beach, narrows suddenly at a small channel in the sandbar and rushes to meet the incoming surf.

It’s on the lee side of this sandbar that the harbor seals take shelter, resting on the sand between foraging trips and, between about mid-March and June, rearing a total of one or two dozen pups a year.

When, in February 1985, about 750 million gallons of partially treated wastewater was released from the overburdened Santa Rosa regional sewer facility into the Laguna de Santa Rosa and on into the river, it was a crisis on multiple fronts.

But concern for those seals at the river’s mouth was what inspired Dian Hardy, then a Guerneville resident, to check on them.

Her apprehension brought her into contact with Elinor Twohy, who still lives a stone’s throw from the haul-out spot, and then-State Park Ranger Dan Winkelman, who explained the larger threat posed by curious humans and their dogs, which are now prohibited on the beach.

With so much coast for two on-duty rangers to cover, said Winkelman, now retired, visitors “would go right down and walk right up to them (the seals), because they didn’t know. And, of course, then the seals would panic and go into the water.”

Seals are at home in the water, where they can dive deep and stay for long periods, their metabolism slowed to preserve oxygen. But those who stay out too long — say, because intruders are on their beach — can put their health at risk, Winkelman said. Rest time on land is essential for the seals to maintain body temperature and reoxygenate their blood.

So together, he and his new friends formulated a plan to have trained human ambassadors stand by during busy weekends to defend the charismatic marine mammals from harassment and to educate visitors about their need for peace, however hard they might be to resist.

“We charted — totally on our own, total citizen participation — what we would do to be of aid to the harbor seals who came out there,” recalled Hardy, now 75.

Space for seals

Having Seal Watch volunteers, even just weekends, “was wonderful,” Winkelman said. They would share binoculars and viewing scopes with visitors, permitting them to view the seals at an appropriate distance. And they would explain why it was important to give the animals some peace.

“They really were seminal in their work in creating this docent program, where they were interacting with the public,” said Sarah Allen, senior science advisor at the Point Reyes National Seashore who consults with the Stewards and helps train volunteers. “A lot of programs since then have used it as a model.”

Two other events converged that year to multiply visitorship to the Sonoma Coast: a cover spread in Sunset Magazine and the arrival of a 40-foot humpback whale named Humphrey the Wayward Whale, whose presence in the Sacramento River Delta provoked a spike in interest in marine mammals and the coast, Winkelman said.

The coast rangers already were running a whale watch program on Bodega Head to educate the public about seasonal cetacean migrations, he said, but the rangers were overburdened. Seal Watch was going so well, it seemed an opportunity to involve volunteer helpers.

Whale Watch is now fully volunteer, with about 50 participants, said Bea Brunn, 85, of Santa Rosa, who has managed the program for most of its life.

“You’d be surprised how many people have never been to the ocean before, and they don’t know anything about anything that is in the ocean,” she said. “It’s just nice to explain and educate them in a way.”

Group renamed

While still limited to Seal Watch and Whale Watch, Winkelman and his volunteers began the work of becoming a State Park Cooperating Association and incorporated as a nonprofit under the name “Stewards of Slavianka,” the name given to the river by 19th Century Russian settlers using their word for “little Slavic dancing girl.”

The group was renamed in 2003 to aid public recognition.

With 23 volunteer programs in place, the Stewards is still building programs around the coast and river, emphasizing education and outreach to park visitors and school kids, as well as stewardship of public lands.

New additions include a mobile interpretive center fashioned from a large panel truck covered in colorful renderings of marine life. Called “The Steward Ship,” it will be stationed from time-to-time at beaches, schools and special events to spread the word about coastal flora and fauna.

The organization also recently began partnering with the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to extend northward the sanctuary’s long-running Beach Watch program. Through it, volunteer citizen scientists conduct regular surveys of coastal areas to document wildlife populations, habitat condition and landscape erosion.

The group also plans installation of new interpretive harbor seal displays at the Goat Rock State Beach, the Jenner boat launch and the Jenner Overlook, a Highway 1 pullout above town that provides a spectacular view of the river mouth and ocean.

“They just sort of fill the gaps where the state doesn’t have the resources to,” Sonoma Coast State Beach Supervising Ranger Damien Jones said. “They do so much for us.”

Volunteers’ dedication

Allen said she’s impressed by the dedication of volunteers and the organization’s retention of people over the years, many of them participating in multiple programs.

Several volunteers interviewed for this story said the opportunity to work outdoors on beautiful landscapes, the camaraderie of their colleagues and the public, the knowledge they gain as citizen scientists, and the opportunity to help the environment make for fulfilling, gratifying work.

“This is an amazing county,” said Cazadero resident Bonnie Chase, a retired Los Angeles firefighter who recently joined the Stewards’ volunteer ranks. “This is a county where people want to do these kinds of things, and there’s enough good people to organize them. And it’s gorgeous. That’s why people are inspired.”

Guerneville resident Katie Killefer, a volunteer at the Jenner Visitor Center who has contributed to a variety of Stewards programs over 15 years, said volunteers are drawn in by the organization’s unique vision.

“When you think how this all started — with people being concerned about seals at the mouth of the river — and how it’s expanded so much, it’s amazing,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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