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Camping controversy and fire concerns

Camping controversy and fire concerns

Sonoma Mountain Regional Park neighbors want to extinguish camping and campfire proposals

By Jay Gamel

Discontent continues to smolder over county plans to install campsites, and allow cooking and campfires at the North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve. The park is accessed from Sonoma Valley via Sonoma Mountain Road, frequently voted one of the narrowest and worst maintained roads in Sonoma County in area surveys. Like ground fires that burn long after visible flames have died away, people living next to the proposed site have not ceased to be passionate about the whole idea since it was revealed last October.

The original master plan concept for the park in 2017 embraced camping, both at the park entrance and backcountry sites near the top of Sonoma Mountain, but the first public workshop held in April of 2017 found most people concerned about allowing dogs and mountain biking. That was several months before the October wildfires ravaged the county and Sonoma Valley. A revised master plan proposal that published last October, after the second round of devastating wildfires just a month earlier, called for three possible park development alternatives, all of which include camping and campfires, to different degrees. “We live in fire-prone country,” Jennifer Beer said in a recent interview. “We are trying to protect our lives. It’s not just trails and a NIMBY situation. This is a safety situation.” Beer and her neighbor Rebecca Casciani are two of several residents who have dedicated themselves to eliminating overnight stays, camping, campsites, cooking, and barbecues from the eventual master plan currently being proposed.

Having fought the major wildfires of 2017 and 2020 alongside their spouses and neighbors, nearby residents consider themselves veterans of a fight to protect their homes in the face of climate change, scarce rain, and safety issues like public camping and campfires in their remote corner of Sonoma Mountain.

“This is not Spring Lake with a fire department right around the corner where people can have their barbecue pits,” Beer said. “This is a very rural, very remote community. So it comes down to no overnight stays, cooking or barbecue of any sort. This is a hike in and hike out spot.”

Robert Stevens, president of the Bennett Valley Citizens Association (BVCA), speaking at the Jan. 25 meeting of the Sonoma County Park and Recreational District’s Advisory Commission, asked for a full Environmental Impact Report, and expressed opposition to overnight stays or fires. He said that BVCA’s 560 members preferred to keep Camping – continued from page 4

the park confined to day use only.

The BVCA is posting information about and from the Sonoma Mountain Road resident’s concerns on their website, www.bennettvalley. org.

Sixteen other people commented on the plan at the meeting, most speaking against allowing overnight stays or fires of any sort.

Parks Planner Karen Davis-Brown presented a summary of the 285 responses received by Nov. 18, 2020, about the revised master plan proposal made last October, which showed: –86% would like to prohibit fires and other ignition sources –14% advocated fuels management, rotational grazing, and hardened infrastructure –60% wanted to prohibit overnight camping –22% wanted limited overnight uses –18% wanted expanded overnight uses –62% liked the least amount of development –31% liked the most amount of development –7% liked less development –100% did not want electric bicycles, with an even split for and against bicycles and horses –40% wanted to see mixed use trails –45% wanted to see specific use trails (like hiking only) A consultant will be hired to “assess and inform the CEQA document,” Davis-Brown said, in response to questions submitted by Casciani after the January meeting. “A fuel load analysis may be part of that analysis and assessment.”

Regional Parks expects the Board of Supervisors to develop a Mitigated Negative Declaration and 30-day comment period for a draft master plan, with final adoption coming in the fall. Staff projects the top of the mountain will be open with new trails by spring of 2022.

The path from proposal to park has been circuitous and intermittent since it was launched in 2014, with the Board of Supervisors transferring five Open Space lands to the Regional Parks department. They included the former Jacobs Ranch, Cooper’s Grove, Wilroth, Skiles Ranch, and Walsh Ranch — all part of a 4.25-mile-long segment of the multiuse Bay Area Ridge Trail. A sixth property, Sonoma Mountain Woodlands, was acquired by Regional Parks in 1995.

The North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve was created from a patchwork of existing parkland, starting at Jack London State Historic Park at the south end of Sonoma Mountain, and then through private ranches acquired by or donated to the county’s Open Space + Ag taxsupported district for the express purpose of becoming parkland. The result is an 820-acre park that includes a four-mile segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail as part of the five-anda- half miles of trails that now connect to Jack London SHP from the Sonoma Mountain Road entrance. Future development could add up to nine miles of new trails.

The trails offer breathtaking views of the region and access the remaining Redwood stands on the mountain. The lands are also a significant part of the mountain’s wildlife corridor, offering shelter and protected passage to an estimated 5,500 species. The park supports a multitude of wildlife, including mountain lions, bobcats, golden eagles, western pond turtles and Cooper’s hawks.

The Ridge Trail aims to connect a 550-mile walking loop of the entire Bay Area from Gilroy in Santa Cruz County to Mount St. Helena in north Napa County, touching as many mountaintops, ridges, and parks as possible. Camping is an essential element of those long-range plans.

In 2012 Sonoma County supervisors set a policy of transferring appropriate Open Space properties to become parks, which has resulted in the formation of Taylor Mountain Park near Santa Rosa, an expansion of the Regional Park near Glen Ellen, adding nearly 3,000 acres of new parklands.

The North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park was opened in February 2015, with an entrance at 5297 Sonoma Mountain Road, not far from Pressley Road.

It is open from 7 a.m. to sunset. No dogs allowed. All trails are open to hikers, cyclists (bikes are limited to the first two miles of the Bay Area Ridge Trail), and equestrians. One staging area is also available for parking and can accommodate horse trailers.