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Graton Rancheria tribe will donate $2.85 million to Sonoma State University nature preserve

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The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria will donate $2.85 million to improve and expand environmental education at Sonoma State University’s Penngrove nature preserve, the tribe announced Monday.

The Fairfield Osborn Preserve, one of three managed by the university in the North Bay, stretches over 450 acres on the northwest slope of Sonoma Mountain. The tribe’s donation will cover renovations including adding capacity and making accessibility upgrades to the site’s educational and research facility. The donation also will fund the creation of an outdoor talking circle, where visitors can listen to lectures outdoors, said Claudia Luke, the director of the Center for Environmental Inquiry, which oversees the university’s preserves.

The remodeled facility, which will be renamed the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Learning Center at the Fairfield Osborn Preserve, is expected to be completed by December 2020.

The Graton tribe already has donated $833,500 to the university, and will pay the rest of its gift as work on the facility progresses.

“It’s been the base for a variety of programs that are both for students and the community to learn about natural lands in our area,” Luke said of the preserve. “It’s time for us to expand our programs and direct our energy toward spreading a larger vision for sustainability and resilience in Sonoma County, so this project is really important for that.”

The university has used the preserve for research and educational programs for nearly four decades. University students and professors conduct research at the facility, and community members can reserve a guided tour. Local elementary, middle and high school students often visit the preserve for class field trips.

Long before the university managed the preserve, the land was a seasonal hunting and gathering ground for Pomo, Miwok and Wappo tribes. Graton tribe Chairman Greg Sarris said some ancient stories claim that the Earth and people were created atop Sonoma Mountain.

“It is a sacred area to us,” Sarris said of the mountain. “We want to support the learning and the restoration of indigenous land in Sonoma County.”

The remodeled facility will provide visitors with information about the tribe’s longstanding presence and history in the county.

The Graton tribe has a history of environmental stewardship and social justice, Sarris said. Last year, the tribe announced that it would co-manage Tolay Lake Regional Park — a sacred area for the tribe — with the county. Sarris said that the revitalization of Sonoma State University’s preserve is another milestone for the tribe in accomplishing its goals in Sonoma County.

Luke emphasized the renovations will enhance the university’s ability to educate community members about environmental sustainability. She added that the facility’s expansion will allow more people to reconnect with nature.

“It is the opportunity to enhance a learning center not just for Sonoma State students, but all students in the Sonoma County schools to learn about nature and learn about the natural environment that surrounds them and in which they live,” Sarris said.

You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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