By Eileen Ecklund
California Coast & Ocean, Vol. 22, No. 1
Spring 2006

Magazine_CaliforniaCoast&Ocean_200604 hiker photo.jpg

A hiker enjoys the view.

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Volunteers haul out trash. Photos by LandPaths, copyright 2006

The drive from Bodega Bay to the Russian River, about 12 miles on Highway 1, takes you along a gorgeous stretch of coastline that is almost entirely open to the public. Most of it is in state parks, but enough is still in ranchland to evoke Sonoma County's agricultural roots. You can stop in numerous places to walk down to sandy beaches, perch on sea bluffs overlooking waves crashing on rocks, or pick up trails that wind along the shore or inland and upward into the hills.

You can hike 17 miles from the ocean's edge to the top of the watershed and down again, passing through several completely different landscapes, from coastal floodplains and meadows to narrow, steep-sloped, forested canyons to windswept coastal prairie. At least two more trails are expected to be built within the next few years, linking hilltops to the shore, and more land will be preserved and opened to the public.

At a time when lack of funding is a major obstacle to expansion of state parklands and of public access, in western Sonoma County several large properties that coastal advocates had coveted for decades have recently been purchased. The largest and most outstanding among them, the upper Willow Creek watershed, was acquired in 2005 to become part of Sonoma Coast State Beach, and promptly opened to the public by means of an innovative partnership between the State Parks Department and a local nonprofit organization. LandPaths has a four-year contract to provide access and other services until State Parks can take over. It does so by relying heavily on dedicated volunteers and relationships with other nonprofit organizations and public agencies.

This arrangement, as well as the acquisition of Willow Creek and several other recent conservation achievements in coastal Sonoma County, was made possible through the efforts of a unique collaboration among various entities working on coastal issues in the region, known as the West County/Coastal Working Group. It was formed in March 2001 to resolve conflicts that were interfering with the progress of some promising coastal projects. "People weren't talking with each other," said Richard Retecki, the Conservancy's North Coast project manager. "There's a tendency in this work to think project by project, losing sight of the bigger picture."

When representatives of these entities came together in one room, their discussions proved so useful that they decided to meet regularly. Not only did they discover they could establish common goals and join forces to achieve them, they found their goals expanding.

The secret of the working group's success, according to Retecki, lies in its ability to focus on particular projects that have major regional significance and strong local support, and to stay focused until these projects are brought to fruition. The acquisition of the Willow Creek property is a good example.

That took three years. Authorities in Sacramento had to be persuaded of the 3,373-acre property's values, a deal with the landowner had to be negotiated, the $21 million had to be raised to meet the purchase price, and an interim operation and management plan had to be devised. Only by working effectively together could those interested in protecting this land have done all this. "We spread the lead responsibilities around according to our strengths," Retecki said.

Beauty and History

Willow Creek flows into the Russian River one mile upstream from Jenner, a small coastal community at the river's mouth. To reach the upper Willow Creek watershed from Highway 1, you take Willow Creek Road, which runs inland just south of the river, follows the river for a bit, then twists upward through meadows and steep forested canyons.

You can enter upper Willow Creek at Freezeout Flat, park in the staging area, then hike for about two miles to a broad ridge with clusters of trees, mostly conifers, scattered here and there. These tree clusters are known locally as Islands in the Sky. They are all you will see from the ridge on some gray days, tall trees rising like islands out of a soft sea of fog. On clear days, however, you can have views south all the way to Bodega Bay, north to the Russian River Valley, and west to the ocean horizon. The entire 8.7-square-mile Willow Creek watershed lies around you.

About 2,200 acres of the lower Willow Creek watershed have been part of Sonoma Coast State Beach for more than 20 years. Like many other protected natural places, they were purchased as parkland in the wake of a battle that stopped proposed development. A huge subdivision, with golf course and shopping center, was planned in the 1960s, and a residential complex in the 1970s. The developers were rousted by local residents who felt strongly that neither was needed.

The upper watershed had been in private ownership since early European settlement, most recently by Mendocino Redwood Company, which bought it in 1998 from Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, along with a total of about 235,000 acres on the north coast. Mendocino Redwood was founded by members of the Fisher family, founders of the Gap, with the goal of proving that timber harvests could be managed sustainably and still be profitable.

Several land-preservation groups and agencies had kept their eyes on the upper Willow Creek property for many years. When Coastal Conservancy project managers Retecki and Don Coppock put together a list of potential Sonoma County acquisitions in 1987, Willow Creek was on it, but the owners weren't ready to sell.

Fourteen years later, the West County/Coastal Working Group agreed to study and plan for conservation measures within 330,000 acres, 110,000 south of the Russian River and 220,000 acres north of it. Willow Creek rated high among the group's priorities.

This property was not only rich in natural diversity, containing four completely different landscapes, but also was an unusually large chunk of contiguous wildland. Its protection would maximize wildlife habitat by linking up several other properties already protected either as parkland or by conservation easement, including the Myers, Colliss, and Carrington ranches to the south and Sonoma Coast State Beach and the Red Hill property to the west. Mountain lions, black bears, deer, bobcats, and other creatures would be able to roam over an expanse of more than 13,500 acres.

Past a Roadblock

The first person to talk with Mendocino Redwood Company about donating or selling Willow Creek to the State was Caryl Hart, a State Parks commissioner who lives in the county, serves on a citizen advisory board of the Open Space District, and is also a founding board member of LandPaths.

"We were approached initially by Caryl Hart a couple of times, encouraging us that this would make a great addition to the state park system in Sonoma County," said Mendocino Redwood's chair Sandy Dean. In 2001, those conversations expanded to include the working group, and negotiations began in earnest.

Funding was pieced together from a variety of agencies and nonprofit groups, including the Open Space District, Trust for Public Land, Coastal Conservancy, California Wildlife Conservation Board, and State Parks. But then, in 2004, the talks hit a roadblock when it became clear that the State would not agree to buy the property for a park unless funding and a plan to open it to the public were in place. The State Parks budget was severely stressed, and there was no way the agency could meet the requirements in the time window available for the sale to go through.

Fortunately, Willow Creek was already open to the public, thanks to an unusual arrangement that Hart and a friend had developed with Mendocino Redwood soon after the company bought the property. Under this system, anyone interested in visiting Willow Creek could obtain a free permit; in return, permit holders would keep an eye on the property and report any abuses. In 2002, the company turned the permit system over to LandPaths, which Hart and others had formed in 1996 to manage another property in the county for State Parks (the McCormick Ranch addition to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park) when State Parks didn't have the money to take it on. Retecki suggested that this arrangement be continued. Acceptance of that idea removed the roadblock and in May 2005 the property was purchased for $20,785,000. More than 500 adjacent acres were protected by conservation easements.

LandPaths opened Willow Creek one month after the sale went through. Anyone can visit, either as part of a guided hike or by obtaining a permit. Permits are free, but applicants must attend an orientation to get to know the staff and to learn more about the property, including such things as how to work the combination lock on the gate to the staging area at Freezeout Flat. (After a year of use and more than 800 permits issued, the lock has been left open only twice.) Permit holders are asked to submit outing reports every time they visit, to help keep LandPaths staff informed of conditions on the property.

"We want to make every opportunity for people who live in the area to get excited about getting to know Willow Creek," said LandPaths' executive director Craig Anderson. "We want people to be in love with this place."

The LandPaths Trail Watch program currently has more than 30 volunteers who patrol on foot, bicycle, and horseback. They report on trail conditions, help hikers in various ways, and "look for anything out of the ordinary," said volunteer Melinda McCutcheon, who lives in Petaluma and said she hikes somewhere in the county every weekend. "One winter there were big mud wallows that had obviously been made by ATVs--people out there doing wheelies or something." She and her friends also take note of how many people they pass on the trails, how many cars are in the parking lot, and what wildflowers they see. "I've been e-mailing wildflower pictures to LandPaths all spring," she said.

LandPaths is also collaborating with the nonprofit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, established in 1985 to support state parks in Sonoma County, in putting together a trail crew for the whole Sonoma coast and to train volunteer crew leaders who can supervise trail work without requiring State Parks staff time.

Volunteers from both LandPaths and the Stewards lead day hikes on Willow Creek for people who don't have permits, and for people who do but want to learn more about the land's natural and cultural history. They work with groups of schoolchildren in environmental education and stewardship programs, including In Our Own Backyard, LandPaths' program for students from second grade through high school. Each class in the program adopts an open space in the county for the school year and completes a project associated with it, such as helping to restore a creek and planting native plants. Each student also chooses a special "sit spot" that he or she will visit repeatedly throughout the year, to foster a sense of connection, and often adopts a particular tree in the spot, naming it and measuring its growth during the year against his or her own. "The more people learn, the more they'll be able to take an ownership role and be stewards of the land," said Michele Luna, the Stewards' executive director.

Planning with Community

There's much to learn about wildlife at Willow Creek. Nearly a dozen species that are threatened, endangered, or of concern live here. You can find California red-legged frogs in streams and wetlands, and in the forests old conifer trees shelter marbled murrelets, the small, threatened birds that build their nests far inland and may fly 40 miles or more to the ocean every day to feed. The highest density of endangered northern spotted owls in the north coast region has been recorded on the Willow Creek property, Retecki said. Streams are being restored for salmon and steelhead, and the Department of Fish and Game is funding work to remove barriers to fish passage.

Willow Creek is among the few public spaces in Sonoma County where horseback riders can ride for miles, and where the trails aren't too busy to accommodate them comfortably. Mountain bikers have used the extensive network of dirt roads and trails for many years, exploring way out into the backcountry. Hikers can choose a short outing or longer trek. "Part of why I love the place is that I can start out walking on Willow Creek, hike up to Red Hill, then down to Shell Beach, and it's all on public land," said Steve Harper. "It's part of a bigger picture." One element of that larger picture, according to the Open Space District's Brennan-Hunter, is a plan to link the Carrington Ranch to Bodega Bay by trail; connections to Occidental and Camp Meeker have also been discussed.

State Parks is developing a general plan for the future of Sonoma Coast State Beach that includes Willow Creek, and LandPaths, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, and all others who are interested are welcome to be part of the process, said Rick Royer.

LandPaths will manage Willow Creek for another three years under the current agreement. In 2009, if the general plan has been completed (it is expected to be by early next year) and adopted, and if the funds are available, State Parks will take over. After that, the roles of the two nonprofit groups will change. Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, which recruits, trains, and handles administrative details for about 350 State Parks volunteers in the Russian River area, will likely expand its volunteer operations at Willow Creek. Whether or not LandPaths stays on "depends on whether there's a role for us to play," said Craig Anderson. "I have the feeling we'll be needed elsewhere by then."

The involvement of local citizens in a state park from its beginning yields benefits for the public in the long run, said Andrea Mackenzie, the Open Space District's general manager. "At Willow Creek, there was already significant community involvement--in volunteering, in getting grants, in stewardship. When you have a history like that, when you have a built-in group of volunteers who love the park, that's more than just a public agency coming in, buying a place, and protecting it. The State can't provide that; that has to come from the community."

In the past there were the Pomo and Coast Miwok, the original people of this place we call Sonoma County, who lived on the land and used it lightly. More recently it has been the multigenerational ranching and farming families who kept their land holdings intact and large enough to be thought of by the rest of us as "open," wild, and unspoiled. The future of Willow Creek will be written by people who live there now and will come in the future, who will learn about it and love it and find the connection to land that has been in so many ways forgotten in modern-day America.

It's a Tradition

The southwestern coast of Sonoma County is unspoiled because local residents have worked imaginatively and persistently for more than 40 years to keep it that way, for their own and the public's enjoyment. It's a place where you not only can wander freely, but also study landmarks of California's coastal conservation movement. At Bodega Head a deep man-made pond, "The Hole in the Head," marks the spot where a nuclear power plant was about to be built in 1962 but was scrapped when citizens discovered the site was on an earthquake fault. Upcoast, 30 miles north of the Russian River, Sea Ranch catalyzed the 1972 Save Our Coast initiative by claiming nine miles of shore for private use. The California Coastal Act of 1976 ensures that you can now visit some of that shoreline, as will the generations after you. The tradition of innovative activism and collaboration for the sake of the coast is alive and well in this county. If you want proof, ask anyone involved with Willow Creek.

To obtain an access permit, join a guided hike, or get more information, call (707) 544-7284 or see

This article is greatly abridged. For the full text, see the Spring 2006 print edition of Coast & Ocean