by Tom Robinson
Consider this a thank-you note to the people who have protected much of the Highway 101 corridor between Sonoma and Marin Counties from development. A job change early last year has me commuting by bus along this stretch and I've come to cherish every patch of non-urban land along the way. As a land conservation planner, this journey has become a daily source of inspiration.
My passion is to protect land from development so that natural ecosystems can function and provide habitat for wildlife and food, clean water and places to be in nature for people. When I look up from my laptop and out the bus window and see a white-tailed kite hovering over the Petaluma Marsh, black-tailed deer foraging on the slopes of Mount Burdell or a herd of Holsteins grazing in the San Antonio Creek Valley, I feel rooted in my work.
At the Bay Area Open Space Council, located in Berkeley, I spend a lot of time in the abstract mapping world where the landscape is depicted as a collection of polygons representing things like woodlands, grasslands, croplands, developed areas and roads. This information is necessary for figuring out where to prioritize conservation. But, at the same time, these abstractions leave out reality — the action happening within those data.
Passion for protecting nature emerges from our experiences with nature — overturning a rock and discovering a salamander, reeling in a trout, making a wildflower press. Our relationship to nature is not about maps. Indeed, too much time spent in the abstract mapping world (or in an office, for that matter) can leave a person feeling disconnected from inspiring on-the-ground realities.
Is a bus ride through open space the same as being on the ground? No, but it’s turned out to be a heck of a lot more grounding than I ever would have thought possible. Starting out in Santa Rosa, you see Taylor Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve rising above the retail stores of Santa Rosa Avenue. Then, coming down into the Petaluma Valley, the dairies and ranches stretching to the Western Petaluma hills spread out before you. South of Petaluma, all the way to Novato, is a string of protected lands: Shollenberger Park, the Yee conservation easement, the Petaluma Marsh (the largest remaining natural tidal brackish marsh in California), Mt. Burdell, protected by Olompali State Park on the north and a Marin County Open Space District park on the south, and Rush Creek Open Space Preserve. Even on the urban Highway 101 corridor in Marin, open space is everywhere. It reminds me of what those polygons represent — living creatures and plants and unending ecological processes that keep the whole thing thriving.
According to the Marin Independent Journal, more than 17,000 commuters travel to Marin from Sonoma County every day. I asked a fellow bus commuter whether he noticed the abundant open space and if it affects him. He said he’s been commuting for so long, he doesn’t notice much out the window anymore. But, he added, “the view of the City from the Marin Headlands still catches my eye.” The fact that there’s a view from the Marin Headlands is a testament to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
I don’t advocate for long bus commutes (stiff lower backs and all that) — but you don't need daily pilgrimages to appreciate the work that the area’s conservation organizations do. The next time you find yourself traveling down Highway 101 through Sonoma and Marin Counties, take a moment to soak in the openness and reflect on how fortunate we are that we have organizations and local governments that prioritize keeping those lands from being covered with buildings and roads. I look forward to seeing more of these lands permanently protected — and to viewing them from a SMART train window!
Tom Robinson is Director of Conservation, Science and Innovation at the Bay Area Open Space Council.
Don't have time to drive down 101? Take a video tour of the open spaces mentioned in this post!
Sonoma Land Trust is a local nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, CA, that conserves scenic, natural, agricultural and open lands in Sonoma County for the benefit of the community and future generations. This blog focuses on SLT's stewardship team, whose members do hands-on work to directly protect, restore, and safeguard the land for generations to come.