Much of the open and preserved space in Sonoma County that makes our county not only beautiful but also provides the peace and tranquility that time in nature can provide, is there partly in thanks to LandPaths, a non-profit organization that has worked for over twenty years to protect our land, and more importantly, connect it to our county’s residents.
Founded in 1996, LandPaths was first created to manage the 1,500-acre McCormick property, which allowed the California State Parks to accept the property as an addition to Sugarloaf State Park, despite severe financial cuts.
“LandPaths started in order to help bridge the gap between lands that were being protected in Sonoma County that there was no funding or staff to take care of,” says Craig Anderson, Executive Director of LandPaths. “We were started as a cooperating agency to assist the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and California State Parks.”
The organization evolved many times since its earliest operations and today its mission is “to foster a love of the land in Sonoma County and create ways for people to experience the beauty, understand the value and assist in healing the land in their local communities.”
“What we started to do to help take care of open space was to utilize volunteers to help bring the price down for the tax payer and to provide access to people who wanted it,” says Anderson. “But that was just the starting point. Where we’ve really grown into in the 22 years is this very deep conviction about the value of land in the public trust and the fact that open space is very much like the commons in Old England in that it’s sort of our group heritage. It’s the well of culture in many ways. What’s important about that is that we as a society are now waking up to the value of having nature in our lives. LandPaths is now very much about helping communities in Sonoma County find these places for their own use but also find them for ways in which they can help take care of them. Land helps people and people help land.”
The organization accomplishes its mission in many ways. They routinely organize free or limited cost public outings to open spaces, farms and parks-in-development throughout the county that have been protected by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. Today they lead about 300 outings with over 1,200 participants annually. Their In Our Own Backyard (IOOBY) program works with 17 schools, including many schools serving low-income students- often those least likely to experience the outdoors. Given that people will only want to protect what they know and understand, students learn about the land through theme-based field trips covering discovery, watershed, wildlife habitat and stewardship projects. To date this education program reaches over 1,000 participants per year.
Other nature awareness and environmental literacy programs for youth that LandPaths provides include Owl Camp, RiverTrek, Back County Basics and Spring Break Trek – camps and outdoor programs for youth from 5 to 16. They also co-founded Sonoma County Environmental Collaborative to increase collective effectiveness and reach of environmental education in the county. In addition, they started a program called Inspired Forward following the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 to link teens to the outdoors and engage them in dialogue about true leadership, citizenship and a vision for a positive future.
Last but not least LandPaths facilitates many volunteer stewardship projects to remove non-native plant species to improve natural wildlife habitat, repair old logging and ranch roads to increase and improve steelhead spawning habitat, plant native plants, tend the community garden at Bayer Farm and work with public agency partners to prepare newly protected properties for future public use.
While the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District is the public agency funded by tax dollars that protects land by purchasing property for parks, open space, green belts and conservation easements throughout the county, LandPaths works closely with that agency to educate, involve the community and steward that land.
“LandPaths by comparison [to the Open Space District] is a non-profit organization,” says Anderson. “While the Open Space District protects land, LandPaths basically connects people to that land.”
The non-profit is funded by many and diverse forms of funding, from general donations from the public, to foundations, to public grants, just to name a few.
“We have restricted funds for some of our properties,” says Anderson. “We currently own five different pieces of land or nature preserves around the county, totaling around 1,300 acres. There was a sixth one until recently and that was Fitch Mountain above Healdsburg. We gave that to the City of Healdsburg when they were ready to accept it.”
The other properties include Riddell Preserve out of Healdsburg, the Bohemia Ecological Preserve near Occidental, Rancho Mark West in Santa Rosa, Willow Creek near Sonoma Coast State Park where LandPaths invested $700,000 in watershed restoration, and the Grove of Old Trees in Occidental, 50 acres of protected old growth redwoods and the only privately held, publically accessible free open space in Sonoma County. The organization piloted a model of free permit-based access that has now been replicated by county parks and open space agencies.
LandPaths always looks for more volunteers to be involved in everything from the In Our Own Backyard schools program, stewardship projects, trail watch patrols and more. Interested participants are encouraged to fill out a volunteer interest form on their website, landpaths.org.
“I really believe in this principle of allowing people to help take care of open space land,” says Anderson. “It’s a really remarkable act of civic engagement, of being a citizen. In some ways it’s an act of patriotism because you’re really helping to take care of the terra firma that helps make our country.”