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Ecology Center eyes sustainable future

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The Sonoma Ecology Center celebrates its silver anniversary this Earth Day — marking 25 years of bringing environmental awareness, ecosystem restoration and overall conservation common sense to the Sonoma Valley.

Ecology Center Executive Director Richard Dale has had his boots on the “green” ground since the beginning. As he and the nonprofit’s indefatigable staff and volunteers gear up for their April 22 anniversary celebration and panel discussion, “Building a Sustainable Sonoma,” we asked Dale about everything from the Ecology Center’s past to its progress to its plans for the future.

The big Earth Day event takes place Wednesday at Ramekins (450 W. Spain St.) with a 5 p.m. reception and panel from 6 to 7:30 p.m. ($20 general; $12 students).

Until then, here’s the second part of our interview with Dale.

In Part 1, which ran last Friday, we talked to Dale about the legacy of the Sonoma Ecology Center. For the second part of our Q&A, the nonprofit’s executive director discusses the future – for the SEC, Sonoma and the world.

The SEC launched the Sustainable Sonoma initiative in 2013. Well, are we sustainable yet?

We’ve made progress learning about and taking better care of what we consider the “foundations of civilization” here — our land, water, climate and biodiversity. We’ve also learned that all this good work really isn’t enough. If someone is focused on survival, or if there are incentives for a business or a household that eclipse the benefits of acting for the health of the community and its environment, those actors can’t be expected to act outside of their interests.

So you’ve got to sell people on this beyond, what’s in it for me?

There is a growing interest here to act more sustainably in realms beyond the environment, with wide-ranging discussions on health and economic disparity, so there is receptivity to a larger conversation.

How does Sustainable Sonoma fit into that conversation?

Sustainable Sonoma invites our community to collaborate on a program to unite our collective sustainability efforts. We have built a framework for the program, and brought together partners from health, and local tourism and business. In the coming months we’ll foster a larger partnership, develop common measures of sustainability, track those measures, identify gaps in collective community sustainability efforts, prioritize actions, communicate progress back to the community, and if all goes well, scale up the project so that by 2025 Sonoma County is the most sustainable county in California.

That sounds like a tall order for the Ecological Center.

We don’t see this as an SEC project, we see this as a Sonoma Valley and County project. If not here, where on earth could this happen?

Do people have any misunderstandings about the SEC?

People tend to think of us based on where they meet us. We’re educators to thousands of students, parents and campers. We lead outings. We raise produce and offer a place to grow it. We establish preserves and help protect key open spaces. We clean up and work on creeks. We host forums and conferences on important environmental topics, make great maps, manage a state park. We work on climate issues, work on water and groundwater. We build innovative partnerships.

So you’ve got your spoon in a lot of pots – er, catchment basins.

Unless you are interested in many of them, you probably only know a part of what we do, and may not see how building a more sustainable community connects all of them.

Is there a perception that you’re environmental activists?

People sometimes expect us to be combative, when in fact we tend be solution-focused and not adversarial. We have found, especially in a small community, that rather than being “against” something, when we are collaborative and strive to create common ground and find multi-benefit solutions that meet multiple interests, we’re more likely to succeed for the long term. We try to emulate how nature works.

Name three SEC achievements in the past 25 years of which you’re most proud.

Creating the Team Sugarloaf partnership that reopened and assured protection for 4,000 acres of critical headwaters land for Sonoma Valley. Establishing preserves for the future, like Sonoma Garden Park, Sonoma Overlook Trail, Van Hoosear Wildflower Preserve, the Nathanson Creek Preserve, and establishing the Sonoma Valley Habitat Corridor. And reaching over 11,000 students in Sonoma Valley, with hands-on environmental science lessons and field trips that connect them to where they live, and provide tools to help take care of their community, wherever they live.

What, to you, is the most pressing environmental concern going into the 21st century?

On the surface, this answer is easy: climate change, and its close relative, water.

The deeper issue is how to get along with each other enough to effectively reduce the impact of these challenges and adapt to the changes that will occur.

What is the single most important thing the average person can do to promote sustainability?

Shorten the distance between each thing you do and the consequences of that action. With every bite of food, every time you turn on a switch or the tap, every time you move from one place to another, you make choices.

These choices have downstream impacts that either move us toward a sustainable future, or move us further away from it. Every action does count.

It’s been 25 years – a quarter century! – since the Ecology Center began. When you pause to consider that, what do you reflect upon?

How lucky we are to live in a place where it’s so beautiful that people love where they live and are motivated to take care of it, and likewise, where ideas and resources to act on them can coalesce so that we can do this, and sometimes create models to help others do the same. It’s an amazing time to live here in Sonoma Valley.

Box: Sonoma Ecology Center by the Numbers

0.1 The percentage of land the Sonoma Valley comprises in the state of California

25 The percentage of California’s species that live in the Valley’s .1 percent of California.

22 Total miles of streams restored by the Ecology Center

50 Number of Ecology Center public walks and workshops hosted annually (and that’s a minimum)

1,200 Students taught each year by SEC

4,000 Acres in Sugarloaf State Park, which SEC has managed since 2012

8,000 Acres of open space protected by SEC

10,000 Number of years humans of been stewards of the land in Sonoma Valley

25,000 Native plants and trees planted by SEC

40,000 Total plants possible in the plant nursery at Sonoma Garden Park