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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

From the air, Trione-Annadel State Park — affectionately just “Annadel” to many — stands like a tall, 5-mile- long island, floating between the flat valleys of Santa Rosa on the west and Sonoma to the east. And like an island adrift in a sea of development, the massif carries a trove of lost natural treasures. Despite Annadel’s 40 miles of official trails, many of its treasures lie hidden from casual view: Few know, for example, that Annadel is home to four types of blooming orchids.

That low profile is a mixed blessing to the small team entrusted with its care. Concealed in the wild, Annadel’s unique features are spared the damage that often comes with human contact. But if they’re kept secret, the public may not support the long-term efforts required to protect them.

While the park today is primarily a recreation magnet, the landscape itself has stories to tell, and the natural history of Annadel is a fascinating tour through time and change.

History of wildfires

October’s firestorm was not the first time flames have swept the Annadel landscape, and how often the fires return is an important question. To find out, Mark Finney, a young Berkeley researcher, hit on the idea of examining ancient redwood stumps in Annadel, looking for burn scars amid the tree rings, which he could then count to track time between fires. What he found was unexpected. Before the mid-1800s, there were fires every six to 23 years on average, and as often as every two years.

That was puzzling, because natural fire starts, such as lightning strikes, are very rare here. The frequent fires suggested a different cause: That they’d been set by humans. And indeed, the native people who came to live in Sonoma County at least 8,000 years ago — the Wappo, the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok — were skilled in using fires to manage the wild resources here.

Native presence

The first people established walking trails throughout the region, including the land now enclosed in the park’s boundaries. Ancient camps mark their presence along today’s Canyon and Marsh trails, which were well-trod routes for thousands of years: They provide the easiest passage for those crossing between the Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valleys. Kate Green, associate archeologist for the State Parks District that includes Annadel, believes from historic understanding and dated evidence that native groups lived mainly in the rich valleys on either side of what today is the park, but visited its high slopes and meadows for the unique resources they found inside.

Using fire to manage the landscape has a number of benefits. First, frequent fires don’t burn as hot or destructively. The ash creates luxurious growth in grasses that attract game, and fire knocks down pests like ticks, while clearing openings in the brush and understory, making movement and access to resources like fallen acorns easier. Fire also dramatically stimulates the growth of certain fire-adapted California species, like the native soap plant. Its sap was used as a lathering shampoo, bulbs were roasted as food and fibrous skins were excellent for scrubbing.

Today, in the burned regions of Annadel, last year’s fires have created a sudden explosion of soap plant, recognizable by its rosette of long, unusual wavy green leaves. While they’re no longer harvested by the descendants of the first people who lived in Sonoma County, they’re a reminder of the respect and old ways of stewardship with nature.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The Annadel highlands were also popular with native people for another unique resource found there.

Volcanic past

Seven million years ago, the Sonoma landscape was wracked with violent volcanic eruptions. Molten lava oozed from open fissures, similar to the vents in Hawaii today. Here, the thick magma was squeezed like toothpaste from the fissured crust, and rose over thousands of years into ridges and mountains whose cores still stand today, like Bennett Mountain, at 1,800 feet the highest point in the park.

Those eruptions left something else: Deposits of volcanic stone, and especially the volcanic glass known as obsidian. Nodules of the glass can be found in outcroppings throughout the park. When skillfully worked, obsidian can be finely crafted into blades, arrowheads and tools with exceptionally razor sharp edges. Tools and ceremonial items made of Annadel obsidian have been identified in sites hundreds of miles away, signs they were being traded throughout northern California. The depth of chipped obsidian flakes at several worksites in Annadel suggest they were produced by human hands over a period of at least 2,000 years.

Green notes that 78 sites showing native American activity have so far been documented within the park. The state and native groups safeguard their locations to prevent looting because they are places of importance to local tribes and as part of state park’s mission to preserve and protect archaeological resources for their cultural, scientific and aesthetic values.

Park maintenance

Sarah Reid, volunteer coordinator for Trione- Annadel, first set foot in the park as a Girl Scout, riding trails during day camp. Since then she’s spent countless hours as a visitor and volunteer and as a senior park aide since 2004, leading interpretative projects and mounted patrols on horseback.

Today Reid and other volunteers are keenly concerned about the list of deferred maintenance and work that needs to be done in the park, from padlocked outhouses waiting years to be pumped, to signage and trail repair, as well as improved protection of artifacts and natural features.

At least 175,000 people visit the park each year, and not just locals: Annadel is popular statewide among mountain bike enthusiasts, birders and hikers. Reid notes that the parking area near Cobblestone trailhead fills up three times a day, in morning, afternoon and evening shifts.

Some of Annadel’s visitors have taken to cutting their own trails through the park, and those unauthorized tracks are creating additional problems, according to Cyndy Shafer, who is the state park natural resource program manager for Annadel. She and a small team are responsible for the park’s diverse life, wetlands and wild places. That means actively managing how they’re protected, often from the same public who’ve come to enjoy them.

“Park trails are carefully planned, designed and intentionally routed after careful scouting. Care is taken to avoid cutting animals off from their few sources of water in the park, to limit impact on thin soils and unique seasonal wetlands, to keep invasive plants from being spread into the park, and to give the creatures who live here the opportunity to find food, nest and survive without disturbance,” Shafer said. Visitors who simply cut trails into hillsides and meadows for convenience or sport may not be aware of the extent of damage they’re doing.

Wildlife

Annadel is home to 10 endangered or threatened species. But that’s not the whole story, Shafer notes. In June, Annadel’s woods and meadows become nurseries for babies of resident native animals. Experts haven’t even fully documented everything living in the park, but there are mink and bobcats, deer and turkey, coyotes and hundreds of species of birds, as well as varieties of butterflies and insects, reptiles and amphibians. Tree climbing striped racer snakes, six types of woodpecker, and a new arrival, a river otter, all make their home in Annadel. They and other wildlife have nowhere else to go when people intrude on, or damage their food, water access and habitat.

This month, Shafer said, park volunteers monitoring the blackened burn zones spotted some unusual flowers growing, which they identified as non-native plants. Apparently, someone had scattered commercial seed packs of wildflowers in the park. However well-intentioned, introducing non-native species is a giant headache for park managers, who already have their hands full trying to protect stands of rare and scarce native plants from invasive foreign pests, stresses of climate change, heavy traffic and limited water.

Plant life

Aaron Arthur is a botanist raised in Sonoma County, spending time as a youngster hiking here with his father. He now works as a consultant, scouting and cataloging the rich diversity of plant life here and across the state. While the average visitor might not see it, the hills and meadows of Annadel are crowded with a dense fabric of life, composed of an incredible number of individual and different species, each with their own survival strategy and features.

Annadel has a very wide range of different soils, terrains and exposures, and as a result it’s packed with as many different types of plant life. Volcanic rock, marsh, seasonal creeks and vernal pools, meadows and chaparral, pristine stands of oaks and mixed stands of bay and madrone provide habitat for a tapestry of plant communities. As a result, Arthur suspects, there is likely more diversity of life in Annadel’s 5,000 acres than in many entire Midwestern states.

Annadel has 18 types of fern alone, and nine types of lily. There are more than 50 grasses, half of them native to the park, including some of the few last stands of wild California grasses that once covered the state. Abundant wildflowers of every hue — from scarlet penstemon to delicate pink wild rose, from dusty blue ceanothus to brilliant yellow mules’ ear — provide a colorful display for months of the year.

Experts like Arthur and Shafer, who spend time closely examining the detailed tapestry of life in Annadel and other parks, recognize in ways the public may not that they contain intact remnants of entire communities of life that have been permanently lost outside park boundaries. They’re not only fantastic recreational playgrounds, they’re also final refuges.

Friends of Annadel

To help close part of the gap in support to maintain and protect Annadel, a new nonprofit community group, Friends of Trione-Annadel State Park, was formed this year by outdoorsman and retired executive Dan Stamps and other concerned Santa Rosans. Information about the group and their June fundraiser can be found at their website fotasp.com.

Exploring Annadel is as easy as paying attention to the sounds of the forest, the color and shape of leaf and flower and, with silence and a little patience, glimpses of the wildlife that call it home. By encouraging visitors to appreciate its unique treasures, Reid, Shafer, Green and Stamps hope to enlist new stewards to enjoy and help protect Trione-Annadel for generations to come.

As Resource Manager Shafer expressed it, “We have a choice in how we continue the natural/human interaction in this park. People who recreate in the park should be aware that a long and complex natural and human history shaped our park, and that the park isn’t static. It will continue to be shaped by human interactions and use, and if we value biodiversity and a healthy environment, then we will tread lightly.”

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

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