As you propel southward across the busy intersection of Lakeville Highway and Highway 37, you find yourself on a path of weathered, yet enduring pavement: Reclamation Road. It is the ingress to a place in the process of reclaiming its right to exist as simply and completely as it did hundreds of years ago.
And that narrow strip of road bordering the San Pablo Bay played host last month to the second-annual Bay Camp, at which several groups of kids got their first glimpse at land that was for decades inaccessible – but is now an open window into Sonoma County’s past.
Bay Camp is a program of the Sonoma Land Trust, in partnership with La Luz, Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance and Teen Services Sonoma, offering local youth a chance at a week of fun in nature – while coming to understand the critical importance of conserving and restoring the land to its natural, thriving state.
The area in which the campers spent their days bears the name Sears Point, after cattle rancher and pioneer Franklin Sears. As its designation implies, the land mass jutting out into San Pablo Bay is a region wrestling with diverse histories: one of flourishing habitat and marshland, and another of agriculture and industry. Although cattle is, now, nowhere visible at Sears Point, the legacy of its two-pronged past is present still. With Reclamation Road as a kind of symbolic boundary, one looks out northeast toward a thriving and restored ecosystem – and then southwest toward barren, sunken ground.
A product of conservation efforts by the Sonoma Land Trust, the former is an ideal of what the latter strives to become.
In 2015, the Land Trust completed part of an $18 million project to restore Sears Point’s natural habitats; following a breaching of San Pablo Bay-side levees, much of the land up to Restoration Road was returned to wetlands. Sonoma Land Trust Director of Community Programs Neal Ramus said they’ve now restored “hundreds and hundreds of acres out here.” “You can see how it’s all come back,” said Ramus. “It looks like a healthy saltwater marsh ecosystem.”
Ramus said the Land Trust’s more recent efforts have concentrated on restoring sediment and soil to better control water flow in areas that a century ago were converted to rangeland, which resulted in the land sinking by as much as 6 to 8 feet below sea level.
“What we have to do is actually restore that sediment load to a point where native species can take over and restore it back to a functioning ecosystem,” said Ramus.
The importance of having a functioning Sears Point ecosystem, according to Sonoma Land Trust “On the Land” Program Manager Ingrid Stearns, is its role in the overall health of habitats throughout the Bay Area.
“The Bay Area marshes... filter pollutants before reaching open water, they protect from flooding by absorbing water and providing a buffer for rising seas and storm surges, and they provide vital habitat for millions of migrating birds as well as endangered species that live only in these marshes,” said Stearns.
Stearns said the seeds of the problem were planted in the 19th century, when marshlands were dyked and drained and converted to farmlands, salt ponds and cities.
“By the 1960s,” said Stearns, “we had lost 90 percent of the Bay Area’s original marshlands.”