Founded in 1985, nonprofit organization Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods aims to preserve and restore the North Bay’s most precious natural and cultural resources.
Aligning with California State Parks, the Stewards maintain and monitor the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, Austin Creek State Recreation Area and Sonoma Coast State Beach, including the Willow Creek watershed. The Stewards also take the time to educate the public on how to safely and ethically appreciate the outdoors.
The last year of pandemics and wildfires tested the Stewards, though the mostly volunteer group is stepping up to help the redwoods recover from last fall’s Walbridge fire, and working to maintain a Sonoma coast that is seeing record numbers of visitors who are escaping the pandemic’s social isolation.
“At Armstrong and Austin Creek, because of the Walbridge fire, those two parks are closed, so our efforts there are focused on fire recovery, and we’ve been doing a lot of work towards opening those parks as soon as possible,” says Michele Luna, executive director of the Stewards. “We have volunteer crews working on getting rid of hundreds of tree logs that were brought down after the fire. We are processing all of that into firewood, we are clearing trails and we’re trying to do as much rehab at the campground at the top of Austin Creek.”
As the public is forced to stay away from these beloved parks, Luna says that the Stewards and many small businesses in the Russian River area are seeing revenue drops due to lack of visitors. Currently Stewards and the state parks department are working together to open the parts of Armstrong Woods that were untouched by the Walbridge fire, though the timeline for reopening there is still uncertain.
What’s not uncertain is the massive surge of crowds flocking to the coastline since the pandemic’s onset. Normally at this time of the year, the Stewards are out at locations like Bodega Head to help guide visitors on whale watching weekends.
As of now, whale-watching gatherings are on hiatus due to the pandemic, though many Stewards volunteers are on the coast working to repair and maintain pathways and other areas, and monitoring seals and seabirds as per usual.
“There’s always trees and trails to clear [on the coast], and we’re getting close to the time of year where we need to start working on the steps that lead down to the various beach locations,” Luna says. “That’s something that traditionally our volunteers do and are very proficient at.”
While there is work everywhere, Luna notes that the Stewards are taking on more volunteers, who are inspired to help in the fire-recovery efforts or who simply want to get out of the house during Covid.
“They work really hard, but they have a smile on their faces because they feel like their work is worthwhile and they can see the results from it,” Luna says of the trail-crew volunteers.
The Stewards are also taking on more citizen science volunteers, who collect data on the coast. Those endeavors include the Pinniped Monitoring Program, where volunteers help ensure the protection of harbor seals who live at the mouth of the Russian River and elsewhere on the coast.
“We also have docents that just rove the trails and monitor conditions and help park visitors as they need to,” Luna says.
The monitoring programs allow the volunteer Stewards to maintain social distancing at the beach, where Luna says many visitors are more relaxed about rules than they would be elsewhere.
“I got a report from a whale watcher who went out on his own, and he said only about half the people were wearing masks,” Luna says. “That’s not a good sign, and that’s one of the reasons we are having to hold back, because people are not abiding by the rules.”
Luna also worries for the safety of visitors who visit the coast without understanding the ocean’s powerful undertow. In January, rough ocean conditions drowned four people in one weekend, including a father who died trying to save his two young children who were swept out to sea.
“That was just horrific,” Luna says. “Unfortunately, it’s just people not paying attention to the signage, or paying attention to the conditions. We talk constantly about what more we can do.”
As a member of the Sonoma Marine Protected Area Collaborative, the Stewards is also looking into adding signage and other alerts about where the Marine Protected Areas are, and what regulations are in place in those areas.
“When we were looking at that issue, we found that there could be better signage in some areas, and signage in different languages,” Luna says. “We are trying to look at how we can improve education.”
As part of its educational programming, the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods hosts an online “Outdoor Ethics Awareness” seminar on Thursday, March 4, at 3pm.
Longtime Stewards volunteer William Nay, a.k.a. Father Nayture, leads the online session. Nay is an experienced naturalist and an educator and trainer with the national programs Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly. He will share tips and techniques to become more aware of our surroundings to minimize our impact on the land.
In addition to online sessions and socially distant work, Luna hopes the Stewards can restart programs like the whale watching weekends as more volunteers are vaccinated against Covid and are comfortable to resume gatherings at the coast.
“The best time to see the whales and calves coming north is in March and April, and if people just want to go out themselves, I have a suspicion there might be a few people out there who know enough about watching whales who can give them direction,” Luna says. “We just encourage everybody to abide by the rules; wear your mask, social-distance, and get out there and enjoy.”