Kids help with habitat restoration at the Wing & Barrel Ranch

Sonoma Creek ends its 34-mile course through the Valley in the salt marshes surrounding Highway 37, east of Highway 121. As it meanders through the low-lying vegetation, it passes beside the thousand-acre Wine & Barrel Ranch – which has implemented its commitment to habitat restoration with an elementary-school program to replant native species.

A full yellow busload of first, second and third-grade students from Petaluma’s Dunham School took part in an ambitious half-day planting efforts recently, under the direction of Students and Teachers Restoring A Watershed (STRAW). After a hands-on demonstration, they threw themselves into their work, collecting gloves, hammers, shovels and mulch as well as seedlings.

They then set out to fill in a narrow strip of ground lining a diversion channel from nearby Tolay Creek. Small color-coded flags dotted the strip, each representing a different kind of bush that was to be planted that day.

“What we’re doing here today is creating some structure and habitat to this area, which has been used for alfalfa farming,” said Emily Allen, a project director for STRAW’s parent organization, Point Blue Conservation. She listed the native flora being planted: blue elderberry, yarrow, California rose, sage brush, Salt marsh baccharis, gum plant, bee plant and creeping wild rye, as well as a number of toyon trees.

The schoolchildren worked the shovels, mulch and seedlings with parents and teachers, one adult for every four children, which proved to be a learning experience for everyone. “We’ve done a lot of background study for the kids as far as riparian corridors and the marsh habitat too,” said Anita Buckner, a Dunham teacher and resident of Agua Caliente. “We’ve been talking a lot about the salt marsh harvest mouse. That little animal is our focus today; we’re providing habitat for those little mice.”

The salt marsh harvest mouse is one of two endangered species in the tidal areas of the nearby San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, along with the California clapper rail.

“The tree planting project at Wing and Barrel is part of our restoration project focused on bringing back native species,” said Darius Anderson, primary owner of the private hunt club. “We are committed to restoring a natural habitat at our club.” Anderson is also a partner in Sonoma Media Investments, which publishes the Index-Tribune.

The private hunting and gun club moved to its current location on Noble Road in 2012. On its website, it describes its relationship with Point Blue Conservation as "focusing on habitat connectivity and climate change resiliency with the potential to link up with adjacent properties and connect fragmented wildlife corridors in the greater San Pablo Bay... Ultimately, this pilot planting will inform larger scale re-vegetation efforts that will successfully result in a resilient habitat into the future."

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, first-grade teacher Buckner was elated to see the schoolchildren working in the damp earth.

“This is so grounding – literally!” said Buckner. “It’s so empowering for the kids, knowing that they’re able to make a difference.” She helped her four-kid crew plant a toyon, then hammer in a four-foot screen cylinder to protect the young plant from deer, birds and other predators.

“It’s good to know about the biology, it’s good to know about the world around you,” she continued. “This is going to make a difference.”

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.