Eyes, ears and boots on the ground at Open Space preserve
Randy Vincent is soft spoken with cobalt blue eyes and a graying beard. “Believe it or not, I was young once,” he joked during a recent interview about his decades-long experience as a volunteer patroller for the Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve.
The 1,290-acre Glen Ellen property, located in Nuns Canyon, may be transferred to Sonoma County Regional Parks if the Board of Supervisors approves it later this month. Currently, the property is only open to the public via escorted outings, but a transfer to Regional Park management would bring it one step closer to being opened to the public at a later date.
In addition to being an avid hiker, Vincent is a talented jazz guitarist who has been teaching at Sonoma State University (SSU) since the 80s and still plays on a regular basis with many local musicians throughout the Bay Area. Among musicians with whom he’s performed and recorded are Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Bill Watrous, and George Cables.
Vincent spent his childhood as a military brat in Orlando, Florida. He started playing in rock ‘n’ roll garage bands, but when he saw singer-songwriter and jazz guitarist George Benson – early in his career – perform in a Florida hotel lounge, he was captivated. Feeling as if he could never play the guitar like that, Vincent said he went home that night convinced he would quit.
But he kept on playing and moved from Florida to Petaluma in 1980. It was there he began teaching at SSU. “I never went to music school, unless you count UHK – the university of hard knocks,” he joked. “Every day I’m getting lessons from studying music and playing it. I’m still learning.”
Vincent, a self-professed “couch potato,” only started hiking when he moved to Oakmont in 1996. New to the community, he joined the well-established Oakmont Hiking Club and longtime member and passionate hiker Henry Szostak took Vincent under his wing.
Szostak was incredibly organized. At the start of each group hike, he would show up with three different hiking options for the group to choose from. Each hike would list the route and detailed statistics like elevation change, estimated calories burned and whether or not, based on the time of year and time of day, one might want to wear a wide-brimmed hat. “I have never been organized in that way,” said Vincent, “but we did have one thing in common.” That was the desire to go out exploring on foot to discover new routes and interesting terrain features. “And, of course, to get lost hiking groups back home,” he quipped.
“Hiking has been great and I love it because it gives me the motivation to get out and do something that keeps me in shape – although that’s a relative term.”
Vincent began hiking on the Calabazas Creek property as part of the Oakmont Hiking Group, when the property was still part of Beltane Ranch. When the Wood family sold the upper portion to the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District in 2004, and the district established its volunteer patrol program there, Vincent decided to sign up for the orientation.
Volunteer patrols are the “eyes and ears on the land, reporting on items such as trespassers, vehicle use, gates left open, weeds, erosion, and suspected cannabis farm-related activity,” said Amy Ricard, community relations specialist for the Open Space District. Volunteer patrollers make a commitment to hike a property at least once a month.
Last year, the volunteer patrol program included 109 volunteer visits in 55 separate trips for over 300 hours of volunteer work. The Open Space District will be holding another volunteer patrol training on Feb. 4. However, it is unknown if the volunteer patrol program will be continued if the property is transferred to Regional Parks at the end of the month.
Over the years that Vincent has been patrolling the property, the biggest change he’s seen is the increase in illegal marijuana grows. Some have been small, but volunteers have also found evidence of large grow operations with elaborate underground irrigation systems. Vincent has come upon stashes of pesticides and herbicides used in the marijuana grows, which is of concern because Calabazas Creek is one of the principal drainages that flows into Sonoma Creek. The preserve stretches from the Valley of the Moon to the ridgeline of the southern Mayacamas Mountains along the Napa-Sonoma county line, and contains the entire Calabazas Creek watershed.
In 2011, volunteers found a large pot grow on the property with neat, trellised hillsides covered in miles of irrigation tubing. Trees were cut, including oaks, to make way for plantings. Campsites were left full of pounds and pounds of garbage, including food remnants, beer cans, clothes, backpacks, numerous cans of bug spray, sleeping bags tied between trees, toothpaste, pots, pans, and a working camp stove. A makeshift bathtub was dug out of the ground.
These large-scale grows, and others discovered on public lands, prompted the district to issue “cannabis protocols” in 2012, restricting access at certain times of the year (i.e. fall harvest time) and other protocols to keep volunteers and staff safe.
However, with no recent discoveries of illegal marijuana grows on the property, the cannabis protocols for Calabazas Creek Preserve were lifted last year.
Beyond illegal grows, volunteers have reported mountain lion sightings, and things like rusty bed springs, old water troughs, and other items possibly left over from the early Nuns Canyon homesteaders who lived in the area from roughly 1850 to 1910. More recently, Vincent encountered backpackers trying to set up camp on the property and has seen evidence of someone fixing up an old picnic area with a horseshoe pit and outhouse on the ridgeline near where the Calabazas Creek property meets the Napa County line.
On Feb. 21, the Board of Supervisors will take up the issue of transferring the Calabazas Creek Preserve property from the Open Space District to Sonoma County Regional Parks.
“It’s a mixed thing in some ways. It’s nice to be a patroller on a property, hike anywhere and not run in to other people. But it’s a beautiful piece of property with nice vistas and should really be open to the public,” said Vincent.
To find out more about Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve and the Open Space District’s volunteer program, visit www.sonomaopenspace.org.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.