The drive from Bodega Bay to the Russian River,about 12 miles on Highway 1, takes you along a gorgeous stretch of coastline that is almost entirely open to the public. Most of it is in state parks, but enough is still in ranchland to evoke Sonoma County's agricultural roots. You can stop in numerous places to walk down to sandy beaches, perch on sea bluffs overlooking waves crashing on rocks, or pick up trails that wind along the shore or inland and upward into the hills.
You can hike 17 miles from the ocean's edge to the top of the watershed and down again, passing through several completely different landscapes, from coastal floodplains and meadows to narrow, steep-sloped, forested canyons to windswept coastal prairie. At least two more trails are expected to be built within the next few years, linking hilltops to the shore, and more land will be preserved and opened to the public.
At a time when lack of funding is a major obstacle to expansion of state parklands and of public access, in western Sonoma County several large properties that coastal advocates had coveted for decades have recently been purchased. The largest and most outstanding among them, the upper Willow Creek watershed, was acquired in 2005 to become part of Sonoma Coast State Beach, and promptly opened to the public by means of an innovative partnership between the State Parks Department and a local nonprofit organization. LandPaths has a four-year contract to provide access and other services until State Parks can take over. It does so by relying heavily on dedicated volunteers and relationships with other nonprofit organizations and public agencies.
This arrangement, as well as the acquisition of Willow Creek and several other recent conservation achievements in coastal Sonoma County, was made possible through the efforts of a unique collaboration among various entities working on coastal issues in the region, known as the West County/Coastal Working Group. It was formed in March 2001 to resolve conflicts that were interfering with the progress of some promising coastal projects. "People weren't talking with each other," said Richard Retecki, the Conservancy's North Coast project manager. "There's a tendency in this work to think project by project, losing sight of the bigger picture."
When representatives of these entities came together in one room, their discussions proved so useful that they decided to meet regularly. Not only did they discover they could establish common goals and join forces to achieve them, they found their goals expanding.