A pristine, quarter-mile stretch of upper Santa Rosa Creek will be permanently protected as part of Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve after the Sonoma Land Trust’s recent purchase of a 40-acre parcel on the park boundary.
The new property, located near the Los Alamos Road entrance at the northern end of the park, contains the last stand of redwoods in headwaters of Santa Rosa Creek and a cool shaded creek canyon ideal for rare steelhead trout, one of which was spotted in its waters just last week, land trust representatives said.
The newly acquired property is relatively small — particularly compared to the 1,750-acre wilderness park it adjoins — but it has important value as a buffer between the park and a growing number of estate homes being built in the area, along Los Alamos Road, the nonprofit group said.
It also extends an established wildlife corridor through the hills above Highway 12 and the Oakmont/Kenwood areas. That corridor has become a focal point of local conservation efforts in recent years, as land managers seek to create room for mountain lions, deer, bear and a host of other critters to roam across Sonoma and neighboring counties.
Kellie Anderson stands in the understory of a century-old forest in eastern Napa County, about 70 miles north of San Francisco. To her left is a creek gully, a rush of the water audible through the thick riparian brush. The large trees here provide a home for deer, mountain lions and endangered spotted owls, while the stream supports the last remnants of the Napa River watershed’s nearly extinct steelhead trout.
“They want to take all of this out,” said Anderson, who sits on the steering committee of a local environmental organization, Save Rural Angwin, named for a community in the renowned wine country of the Napa Valley. She is studying a project-planning map of the area as she waves her free arm toward the wooded upward slope. “It looks like this will be the edge of a block of vines,” she said.
Anderson and two fellow activists, Jim Wilson and Mike Hackett, were visiting a property of several dozen acres that the owners plan to clear and replant with grapes, the county’s principal crop. The project is one of many like it pending approval by Napa County officials, who rarely reject a vineyard conversion project in the Napa Valley, a fertile strip that runs northward from the shores of San Francisco Bay.
In Napa County, neighboring Sonoma County and farther to the north in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, concern is growing among some residents, environmentalists and scientists about the expansion of vineyards into forested regions and the impacts on watersheds and biodiversity. In Napa, an aerial view reveals a carpet of vines on the valley floor, which is why winemakers hoping to plant new vines increasingly turn to land in the county’s wooded uplands. At these higher elevations, “about the only thing standing in the way of winemakers are the trees,” said Hackett.
“Napa is getting really carved up,” said Adina Merenlender, a conservation biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who began studying the ecological impacts of vineyard conversions in the 1990s. “We see it all over the western and eastern ridges — it’s been relentless.” The transformation of shrub, oak and conifer habitat into new vineyards threatens wildlife migration corridors, she said. “We’re down to the final pinch points,” said Merenlender, referring to narrow corridors that eventually could become functionally severed from the relatively expansive wilderness areas in the mountains north of Napa County.
Federal fisheries scientists also have expressed concerns that the wine industry is harming endangered populations of steelhead trout. The creeks flowing off the hills of Napa County are critical to remnant populations of steelhead and salmon, and biologists with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) say the irrigation of vineyards has reduced stream flows and clogged waterways with eroded soils. “Extensive water diversions, groundwater pumping, and increased agriculture (vineyards) water use during the dry season have reduced the extent of suitable summer rearing habitat … throughout much of the Napa River watershed,” NMFS scientists wrote in the Napa River chapter (PDF) of a 2016 report.
In a first, Audubon Canyon Ranch biologists trapped a female mountain lion Wednesday night in Sonoma Valley and outfitted the sedated animal with a GPS collar before letting her back into the wild so they could track her movements.
The delicate operation is part of a groundbreaking effort to protect what remains of the Wine Country habitat where lions and other creatures live.
The study is being led by Quinton Martins, a South African biologist whose experience includes tracking leopards in remote corners of the world.
Martins and a team that included two veterinarians were alerted Wednesday at about 8 p.m. that a mountain lion they’d previously spotted on a wildlife camera had entered a cage filled with road-kill deer.
The trap was set on the grounds of Glen Oaks Ranch, a 234-acre Sonoma Land Trust property that borders ACR’s Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen.
The research team reached the trapped lion in less than 10 minutes and sedated the big cat using a blow pipe, according to Wendy Coy, a spokeswoman for ACR.
The biologists fitted the lion with the GPS collar and also collected blood, tissue and other biological samples. The cat, named P1 for “Puma 1,” is estimated at between 8 and 10 years old. She weighed about 86 pounds and was over 6 feet long from her nose to the tip of her tail.
Have you had an encounter with a mountain lion? Organizers of Audubon Canyon Ranch’s mountain lion study want to hear from you. Fill out their survey at surveymonkey.com/r/MTLIONACR.
In his office at Glen Ellen’s Bouverie Preserve, Quinton Martins has several collars equipped with GPS technology that he has used to track and study leopards in remote places around the world.
The South African biologist and acknowledged authority on big cats is now gearing up to track a different predator — the mountain lions that call Sonoma and Napa counties home. Audubon Canyon Ranch has hired the famed researcher to conduct the groundbreaking study, which the nonprofit agency hopes to use as the basis for protecting what remains of the habitat in which the lions and other creatures live.
Nobody knows for sure how many mountain lions roam Wine Country. That’s one key question Martins hopes to answer with his research. He said under optimal conditions, he would expect to find as many as 50 adult mountain lions living in the 1,000-square-mile territory included in the study.
The general public, however, usually only hears about the cats when something unfortunate happens, such as the rare occasion when a lion attacks pets, livestock or humans. Or, when a lion is the victim of circumstance, as was the case March 1 when an adult female was struck and killed by a motorist on Highway 116 near Monte Rio.
The less headline-grabbing, but just as compelling, story is how these beautiful and powerful animals, which can reach 220 pounds and stand 3 feet tall, have managed to survive in an increasingly urbanized environment, hunting prey (mostly deer), mating and doing their best to avoid contact with humans who are, in Martins’ words, “super-predators.”
Generations of kids and other nature lovers will continue to enjoy outdoor experiences at a Mark West Creek ranch northeast of Santa Rosa under a new conservation deal that maintains public access to the property in perpetuity.
More broadly, open space advocates say preservation of the 124-acre Rancho Mark West builds upon a legacy of protecting land from development in the sensitive environmental area while offering the public more opportunities to engage with nature a short distance away from Santa Rosa.
“We hope to be able to walk people from Santa Rosa to Rancho Mark West to spend the night. That would be a pretty incredible opportunity,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit group LandPaths.
LandPaths will continue to operate In Our Own Backyard, Owl Camp and other popular outdoor programs for kids at the St. Helena Road ranch under an updated conservation easement that protects public access to the site.
Measure to curb urban sprawl set to expire next year
Many organizations concerned with the future of the county’s Community Separator program are being proactive about the impending sunset of the voter-approved measure coming up next year. A survey commissioned by the Greenbelt Alliance indicates strong voter support for not only re-approving the concept of preventing urban sprawl, but even strengthening it to include a wider area of protection, such as riparian habitat, and protecting drinking water, among others.
Community separators basically seek to preserve a greenbelt around each Sonoma County city by prohibiting increased building density without a public vote. They do not restrict any other permitted development within the designated zoning overlay. To qualify for a county mandated community separator, each city had to establish its own Urban Growth Boundary – a limit on how far the city would seek to expand in the future.
With a few exceptions for schools, fire departments and other public interest developments, the community separator concept has been successful: there have been no increased density developments within them for the past 18 years, though there have been developments, such as Kenwood’s La Campagna/Sonoma Country Inn on the Graywood Ranch property, which was permitted through an exception for “overriding considerations,” such as enhanced tax revenue.
Two years ago, the county’s Board of Supervisors budgeted time and resources for its Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) to examine the effect of the community separators and what to do when they expire. A PRMD analysis is expected to be delivered before the end of the year. The direction was to review and strengthen General Plan community separator policies.
However, as far as strengthening the law, Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin said, “PRMD has limited resources to work on the necessary outreach to consider adding extensive land to the separators, in anticipation of a ballot initiative.”
The process for renewal of a similar or expanded community separator law involves either the supervisors putting it on the ballot, or it being created through a voter petition, requiring nearly 15,000 signatures in Sonoma County. The former is the preferred process of just about everyone concerned.
A wide range of interested people gathered at the Sonoma Land Trust office in Santa Rosa on Oct. 8 to hear the Greenbelt Alliance survey findings. Those present included representatives from the Sonoma Ecology Center, the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission, Valley of the Moon Alliance, Sonoma County Conservation Action, Sonoma Land Trust, Wine & Water Watch, American Farmland Trust, Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, Greenbelt Alliance, Preserve Rural Sonoma, and city council members from Santa Rosa and Petaluma.
While it’s been in operation since 1891, the state may close Glen Ellen’s Sonoma Development Center, a state facility for behaviorally and developmentally disabled adults.
If the state gets its way, Kathleen Miller’s disabled adult son and some 400 other patients will be forced to leave the care of Glen Ellen’s Sonoma Development Center for a destination unknown.”[State officials] say they want to collaborate with us, but this is a fast-track for closure,” Miller says. “They want to close it very quickly, and almost dangerously.”
Miller is the head of the Parent Hospital Association at the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), which the state has scheduled to close in 2018. Last week she was one of several local advocates for the center who teed off on the proposed closure plan offered by the state Department of Developmental Services.State Sens. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Bill Dodd, D-Napa, share her concerns and took issue with a plan that they said doesn’t address the fate of the developmentally and behaviorally disabled people now living at the facility.
“We are incredibly disappointed with the draft plan that was put forward last week,” the lawmakers asserted in a Sept. 21 press release. “The report is inadequate and lacks the specific details that we as a community expected, and quite frankly, were led to believe would be delivered.”
The question hanging in the air is what happens if efforts at community placement of residents fail by the time the facility closes? Closing the SDC means closing a facility of last resort for some residents who might otherwise find themselves getting their mental-health services in locked-down hospital psychiatric wards or, worse, in jail.
A bill that sought to close the Sonoma Developmental Center and a similar facility in Southern California on an accelerated timeline was held over Tuesday until next year.
The bill’s author, Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, said he agreed to the delay after he and Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, met Monday to discuss McGuire’s concerns about the proposal.
McGuire is chairman of the Senate’s Human Services Committee, which heard SB 639 Tuesday.A month ago, McGuire publicly criticized Stone for bringing the bill, saying the Riverside County senator “would be challenged to find Sonoma on a map.”
The site is at the heart of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, linking more than 9,000 acres of protected land running west to east from Sonoma Mountain to the Mayacamas mountains. The property also is a bridge between Jack London State Historic Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park.
Deer, mountain lion, coyote, bobcat and rare species that include steelhead trout, northern spotted owl and California red-legged frog live on or frequent the site. Sonoma Creek, which runs through the center’s property for about three-quarters of a mile, is one of the county’s most significant streams for steelhead.
A coalition led by the Sonoma Land Trust has launched an intensive review of potential uses for nearly 1,000 acres of prime real estate and the buildings that make up the Sonoma Developmental Center should the state close the facility.
Dubbed the “Transform SDC Project,” the 18-month review includes a series of public meetings for people to weigh in on the center’s future. The first meeting is scheduled for May 2 in Sonoma.
“We’re hoping anyone that cares about SDC will see this as the place to bring their ideas,” said John McCaull, the Sonoma Valley land acquisitions project manager for the Land Trust.
The center near Glen Ellen is battling declining admissions, licensing problems and calls to shut down to save taxpayers money. But what to do with the campus, which includes 145 buildings, and pristine grounds surrounding it is the source of an intensifying political and land-use battle.
About 400 or so developmentally disabled people still reside at the center and receive around-the-clock care there. With about 1,300 employees, the center also is Sonoma Valley’s largest employer.
One model being touted for the center’s future use is for a government entity to maintain ownership of the buildings and lease space to generate revenue. The surrounding property under this vision would be maintained as open space or become additions to nearby county or state parks.
Deer, mountain lion, coyote, bobcat and rare species that include steelhead trout, northern spotted owl and California red-legged frog live on or frequent the site. Sonoma Creek, which runs through the center’s property for about three quarters of a mile, is one of the county’s most significant streams for steelhead.
A coalition of Sonoma County government agencies and environmental groups is ramping up its fight to protect the Sonoma Developmental Center from development and to maintain residential care for an unspecified number of severely disabled clients.
About 500 people reside at the Eldridge facility, which also is Sonoma Valley’s largest employer. But the site’s future is in doubt after a state task force in December recommended that California’s four remaining developmental centers be downsized.
Concerns the state could abandon the nearly 1,000-acre Sonoma Valley site have galvanized the local community and caught the attention of the North Coast’s legislative delegation. The group’s demands include that the center’s open spaces be protected and for public recreational facilities to be expanded, in addition to maintaining some level of services for the disabled.