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Sonoma Land Trust invests in the next generation

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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.”

In conjunction with its dedication to conservation, the Sonoma Land Trust is pursuing another goal: a pledge of community outreach. And as part of that, the organizataion last year launched Bay Camp, a bilingual summer program targeting low-income, Latino youth in Sonoma Valley.

The Land Trust this year surpassed its goal of 50 percent Latino participation and awarded scholarships to 82 percent of attendees.

The 2018 Bay Camp, which finished in late July, ran for three weeks and welcomed three distinct groups of students to one of two different types of sessions, each a week long. During Bay Explorers, for ages 7 to 12, attendees rode bicycles, kayaked in the waters of the restoration site and participated in activities that highlight each day’s unique marsh ecology theme.

During Adventure Week, older campers, ages 12 to 14, kayaked across such waterways as the American River, the San Pablo Bay at Sears Point and the Russian River.

“The camps are an opportunity to introduce children and their families to this important tidal marsh ecosystem,” said Stearns. “By experiencing and interacting with the tidal marsh, and learning about the life that is dependent upon it, children gain a familiarity with the habitat that is at the edge of our county.”

Stearns noted all the new skills the kids learn: some ride bikes for the first time, or transition from training wheels, and many of them experience being in a boat on the water and kayaking for the first time.

“Through these activities, children gain the confidence in themselves to be able to face new challenges, and this is a universal skill,” Stearns said.

Added Ramus: “I hope that we’re making future conservationists.”

If nothing else, Ramus has hopes the program is instilling “a sense of responsibility and appreciation for natural landscapes, for the restoration of very vital habitats” – of growing importance as scientists continue to sound the alarm over the likelihood of sea-level rise. “(As the seas) continue to flood into areas that have a more-recent history of agricultural (use), these wetlands are going to play an integral part in preventing that flooding,” said Ramus. He said it will be vital in the protection of Petaluma, Sonoma, Napa and Schelville.

Sonoma Land Trust offers scholarships and transportation so that the camp is truly accessible to all; they have also hired bi-lingual counselors.

“This camp is focused on removing barriers to accessing the outdoors, and that makes me feel really proud to be a part of its creation,” said Stearns.

Bay Camper Andres, an incoming fifth grader at St. Francis Solano School, described it as “the best.”

“I’ve never been to any camp like this,” said Andres, mentioning what he’s learned and the friends he’s made over the five-day camp.

Camp Director Kaya Halpern believes it offers kids a wholly unique experience.

“What this camp offers is meeting new people and putting them in a new setting other than school where they’ve been put into this box and put into this category,” said Halpern. “(Bay) camp allows them to break out of that.”