On a steamy Saturday afternoon in June near Duncans Mills, about 35 people huddle under a stingy ring of shade at the edge of a clearing in the Freezeout Flat parking area. We’ve signed up for an orientation to secure a day use permit, our ticket to Willow Creek Park, a nearly 3,400-acre stretch of wetlands, rolling grasslands, and upland forests just a few miles beyond the mouth of the Russian River.
But we're here for more than a day use permit. We’ve come to sign on as stewards of land that should be ours, and would be in fact, save for California’s devastating budget deficit.
“These orientations create an opportunity for anyone who’s interested to explore areas otherwise not open to the public,” says Meg Hamill, field programs assistant for LandPaths, a Sonoma County nonprofit that works with California State Parks, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, and a diverse range of individuals and organizations to maintain the park under its “community-powered” model of stewardship.
LandPaths relies on the dedication of local nature lovers to keep this sprawling open space, known as the Willow Creek addition, accessible to the public. Although Willow Creek is part of Sonoma Coast State Park on paper, it remains separate, and unequal. The state can’t afford to maintain the property or pay rangers to monitor wildlife and the spread of sudden oak death, the pathogenic fungus that’s decimating California’s iconic oak trees.
That’s where the permit program comes in. Though the park would be open to everyone without restriction in a perfect world, Hamill says, the ideal of a public state park for this parcel crumbled under the reality of the state’s spiraling budget crisis.
Like most other state-funded entities in California, the fate of the state parks hinges on Gov. Jerry Brown’s struggles to solve the state’s unprecedented budget crisis. Five Sonoma state parks were originally slated for closure, though recent agreements gave three parks – Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Jack London State Historic Park and Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park-- a reprieve, at least temporarily.
The Willow Creek permit program started in 2005, after a public-spirited coalition of groups led by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and the Trust for Public Land paid Mendocino Redwood Company, a Ukiah-based logging outfit, $22 million to turn the privately held Willow Creek watershed into a public resource.
The state park system agreed to a novel partnership to protect the Willow Creek area on the condition that people gained access to the land right way. The original idea was to incorporate Willow Creek into the adjacent Sonoma Coast State Park’s jurisdiction. But Sonoma Park officials knew they couldn’t manage more responsibilities at that point, so they decided to experiment with a new model, teaming with a nonprofit outfit to create this “people powered” solution.
Thanks to a grant from the Coastal Conservancy, LandPaths developed the permit program to get people out on the landscape, not just as hikers, bikers, and equestrians but as stewards and managers. Sign up for the hour-long permit orientation, which happens once or twice a month, depending on the availability of staff and volunteers, and you learn a bit about the history of the park, the challenges of maintaining the land on a shoestring budget, and why your time, energy, and donations are critical to its preservation.
State park officials originally expected to take over management of the Willow Creek addition after four years, but that was before the global economic meltdown. Since then, permit holders can still access the land thanks almost entirely to their own generosity.
The permit program ensures that anyone who’s motivated to attend an orientation can access the 15-mile network of trails and old logging roads anytime between sunrise and sunset. A permit buys you the code to the combination lock on the gate at the end of Freezeout Road just east of Duncans Mills and a pass for the Freezeout Flat parking area.
From the parking area, it’s a short walk to the so-called “Pressure Drop Trail,” a lung-busting climb (or exhilarating downhill on mountain bike) that winds through fern-covered forests with bays, oaks, old-growth redwoods, and Douglas fir and opens onto sloping ridge tops covered with tawny native grasses and sweeping views of nothing but nature. (Sure, we're part of nature but it's rejuvenating to gaze upon a landscape without power lines or houses as far as the eye can see.)
Permits are free and good for the calendar year, though you can renew without another orientation. LandPaths asks only for donations, though Hamill encourages permit holders to leave a note at the Freezeout Flat access trailhead if you see any “blowdowns” (fallen trees on the trail), evidence of sudden oak death, damaged trail signs, or anything else that seems amiss. “We want permit holders to become the eyes and ears of the park,” she says.
“And if you fall in love with Willow Creek, consider donating funds to help keep the park open year-round. Or donate time and energy,” she urges. “We need all the help we can get.”