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Special coverage: Sonoma County Regional Parks

In the beginning, there was only Doran Beach, a 2-mile sliver of ocean shoreline that became the cornerstone of Sonoma County’s splendid landscape of regional parks.

The genesis was a half-century ago, but then as now, the stretch of pale sand and gentle surf — once part of the sprawling Bodega Rancho and acquired by the county during World War II — proved alluring to campers, anglers and bathers, who flocked to Doran’s shores by the tens of thousands.

Parks along the Russian River in Healdsburg and at Gualala Point on the coast were quickly added to the roster, under the oversight of a fledgling agency created by the Board of Supervisors in 1967 to operate a growing network of picnic sites, campgrounds and public spaces.

It was the dawn of a new era in outdoor recreation, with hiking and camping on the rise among young baby boomers. Prescient park supporters and planners saw fit to draw up recreational blueprints for a growing population and to preserve, while they were at it, the region’s forests and coastal access amid creeping urbanization and rising real estate prices.

The result, said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane, is “one of the best park systems, honestly, in the United States, if you look at what we’ve got in terms of the coast and the river and the redwoods and mountains to climb.”

“We wouldn’t have gotten where we are today if there weren’t people with vision,” she said.

In the past 50 years, Regional Parks has amassed 12,000 acres of public land — with more additions on the horizon — offering a diverse choice of natural scenery and adventure in nearly every corner of the county.

And the visitors — local and Bay Area residents, tourists from home and abroad — have come in numbers that bear out the decades of work, with taxpayer support. The now 56 parks, trails and beaches together see more than 5 million visits a year.

“Our county parks have really become important to quality of life for people,” said Bert Whitaker, a one-time river beach lifeguard who built a career in county parks and took over the agency’s top job in June.

From the sweeping vistas atop Hood Mountain’s Gunsight Rock to the secluded redwood trail at Stillwater Cove, from the rolling, wooded hills of Shiloh Ranch to the refreshing river waters of Steelhead and Sunset beaches, it is a geography that supports and sustains many of our most cherished traditions, forged around free time, with friends and family.

Unlike distant national parks such as Yosemite, these are places of discovery just minutes away from home, where visitors can find serene stillness or challenge themselves on miles of bike and pedestrian pathways. There are vast tracts of undeveloped land, small neighborhood playgrounds, athletic fields, a boat marina and even a historic one-room schoolhouse.

“It’s pretty cool to have all of this in your backyard,” said Aaron Schreiber-Stainthorp, who has lived in Santa Rosa only three years but knows the park system like few others.

Schreiber-Stainthorp and his now-fiancée, Jessica Pollitz, challenged themselves two years ago to visit every site in the park system. Their favorite destination at this point: Gualala Point Regional Park, a gem that combines redwoods and riverfront camping with bluff-top trails, rocky coastline and sandy ocean beach.

Special coverage: Sonoma County Regional Parks

They pedaled to many of the parks, camped out by car and bicycle, explored creek trails in the city, paddled down the Russian River and, at the end of their 14-month quest, canoed through the tidal wetlands of Hudeman Slough at the edge of Skaggs Island.

Pollitz, a civil and water resource engineer, said she took away deep gratitude even for places she hadn’t heard of before.

“It’s pretty impressive, the resources we have in Sonoma County,” said Schreiber-Stainthorp, a sustainability expert. “I think not everyone realizes all of the amazing places that we have to visit locally.”

Sonoma County is blessed with the kind of ecological diversity that makes such a spectrum of experiences possible, said Whitaker. He took over as the agency’s fifth director from Caryl Hart, a longtime parks advocate who during her 7-year tenure spearheaded a near-doubling in Regional Parks memberships — now at 25,000 — which afford users year-round access and other discounts.

For Hart, the membership system and its marketing are a mark of the agency’s innovation, as well as the public’s recognition that county parks are now “almost central to people’s lives.”

“They love the parks and they want to support it,” Hart said.

Fifty years ago, the first person to direct the parks agency was the late Joe Rodota, hired on at $996 a month to build the department from the ground up. Rodota’s tenure began just as the county was trying to bring order to the helter-skelter use of Doran Beach — then overseen by the county Harbor Commission — by putting limits on stays and charging overnight and boat launching fees of $1. Fifty-cent day-use fees were soon to follow.

Before his 1990 retirement, Rodota would guide the development of Hood Mountain, Ragle Ranch, Crane Creek, Stillwater Cove, Spud Point Marina, Maxwell Farms and Southwest Community Park, later acquired by Santa Rosa.

The county named its landmark multiuse trail running between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol after him in 1991.

Through the years, the county has depended on partnerships with community groups and an aggressive pursuit of grant funds and other opportunities to grow the park system.

But perhaps most critical to that continued expansion has been the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, approved by county voters in 1990 and funded by a quarter-cent sales tax that has supported purchases of unique properties and easements setting aside open space.

Since its founding, the Open Space District has transferred nearly 6,300 acres to Regional Parks for new parks or additions to existing ones. Nearly 4,000 additional acres are slated for future transfer.

“We’ve more than doubled Regional Parks’ acreage since we came on,” said Bill Keene, the district’s general manager.

Though parkland accounts for a small fraction of the more than 112,000 acres protected by the district thus far, having stable funding has allowed the agency to preserve wildlands that might eventually be earmarked for parks or limited public access.

“They’ve done a remarkable job of buying land — not just the parkland, but the agricultural land, too, that is important to a big segment of this community,” said Mary Burns, regional parks director from 2004 to 2010. “We’re doing the right thing of leaving a legacy for future generations.”

And while such collaboration has not been seamless ­— financial shortfalls and prolonged planning efforts have delayed opening some new parks for years — the ultimate results most often prove popular with visitors. Two recent examples include Taylor Mountain, which rises at the southern edge of Santa Rosa, and North Sonoma Mountain, which provides the first public access to the mountain’s northern slope.

The park system “bloomed” into the far-reaching, diverse network it was meant to be through the Open Space District, said Jim Angelo, who served as Regional Parks’ director from 1989 to 2004.

“It is just an incredible, incredible benefit to this county, working hand in hand with Regional Parks,” said Angelo, who worked 35 years with the agency.

Other key partners in the system’s evolution include the Sonoma County Trails Council, which fields volunteers for trail-building projects, and the Regional Parks Foundation, which raises funds for parks. It made a splash several years ago helping to introduce the popular fall Water Bark events for dogs at Spring Lake swimming lagoon.

Other new initiatives in recent years have sought to appeal to Spanish speaking visitors, including guided hikes and campouts. Regional Parks also added a resources division focused on protecting and restoring the region’s unique assortment of plants and wild animals and their habitats.

But the park system is limited by its current funding, a $23 million annual budget supported predominantly by user fees. In a ballot measure last year, the county came close to securing the kind of dedicated parks funding that proponents say is needed to open new sites, add parking, restrooms and other amenities, and upgrade existing sites sorely in need of maintenance.

The proposed half-cent sales tax fell just short of approval by two-thirds of voters in the unincorporated area. County officials and park supporters have signaled that another tax proposal is in the works, possibly for 2018.

Hart said the absence of dedicated funding for regional parks distinguishes it from most Bay Area counties and ignores the parks’ value as “a huge driver of the economy.”

Though beloved by residents, the parks draw tourists, as well, drawn by the breadth and diversity of settings and experiences.

“I think we really have to continue down this path,” she said. “We’ve got to get dedicated funding to make sure the system can thrive into the future.”

Financial pressures aside, park supporters say the legacy and future of Regional Parks depends in a deeper way on maintaining users’ close ties to their cherished public places.

Perhaps nowhere in the county is that endearment more storied than at Doran Beach, where generations of campers converge from spring through summer and into the fall. In November, families and old friends in search of Dungeness crab gather like it’s a homecoming. Their annual harvests in the bay and out on the open ocean support sumptuous feasts around campfires beneath the stars. They come back year after year, reserving their spots 12 months ahead of time.

Over and over, you hear people say, “I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid,” Supervising Park Ranger James MacMillan said. “‘Now we’re bringing our kids here,’ and ‘Now we’re bringing our grandkids.’”

“It’s a real special place,” MacMillan said. “People love being out here.”

For Schreiber-Stainthorp, the same could be said of the whole spread of regional parks.

“I’ve fallen in love with Sonoma County,” he said, “and part of that is just that nature feels like a part of daily life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@ pressdemocrat.com.

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