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    Sarah Olsen, a camp leader from the Sonoma Ecology Center, talks to Samuel Schultz, 6, who made his way onto a rock at the bottom of the Sonoma Creek falls in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. The park near Kenwood has been open for two weeks thanks to a team effort of nonprofit agencies.


    Part of "Team Sugarloaf," John Roney, left, Scott Courtright, center, and Richard Dale on Thursday check out how to replace a sign at the summit of Bald Mountain in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, with a view of Mount St. Helena in the background.

Unique nonprofit coalition keeps state parks open in Sonoma

Published: Saturday, Jun. 16, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 19, 2012 - 8:47 am

KENWOOD – Roll into Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma County these days, and you won't see stiff Stetson ranger hats or reassuring tan polyester uniforms. There are no state logos on the trucks. In fact, there are no state trucks.

That sense of order and stability that has prevailed at this scenic mountain preserve for more than 50 years is gone. That's the bad news.

The good news is that the park is still open – one of the lucky state parks to avoid a closure deadline looming July 1.

For all of two weeks, the park has been operated by "Team Sugarloaf," a coalition of small nonprofits that came together only a year ago. Together they are doing what none could do alone, and what has never been done before: For five years, they will baby-sit this precious public resource set adrift by state budget cuts.

By organizing volunteers and corralling grants, Team Sugarloaf is doing the work the California government would not pay for.

"Every spare minute is spent doing the work of figuring this nut out," said Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, who has piled 30 to 40 hours onto his regular workweek – unpaid – to become de facto park superintendent at Sugarloaf.

"There's a lot of learning going on," he said. "If it weren't such a beautiful place, it would probably be something to complain about."

Dale and his patchwork of volunteers and employees wear small plastic "Team Sugarloaf" name badges. There are no uniforms yet – that decision was expected Friday – because the first two weeks were buried in the thousand details it takes to run a state park.

Sugarloaf was one of 70 parks set for closure to cut $22 million from the state Department of Parks and Recreation budget, ordered by the Legislature and governor. Proposition 21, which would have raised vehicle license fees to fund parks, was rejected by voters in November.

Sonoma County may be unique in the state in how it responded when closures were announced. With five local parks on the list, county officials and more than a dozen nonprofits immediately began meeting to find a fix.

Eventually, said Caryl Hart, the county's regional parks director, different groups claimed responsibility for keeping different parks open. They formed the Parks Alliance of Sonoma County as a coordinating group, and began raising money and negotiating with the state.

A year later, four of the five parks are off the closure list, and a deal is in the works to keep the fifth – Austin Creek State Recreation Area – open as well.

Team Sugarloaf finished an agreement May 23 – after four months negotiating with the state – and found itself with keys to the park a week later. The deal allows Team Sugarloaf to operate the park for five years. It must enforce existing state rules and heed the park's general plan.

The agreement can be renewed, but all involved hope better times bring park rangers back in five years.

"I am optimistic they can do what needs to be done. But it is a stopgap measure," said Hart, who also chairs the state Recreation and Parks Commission and was instrumental in organizing local groups. "The state has got to step up here and come up with a long-term vision for its parks."

Assessing a challenge

Sugarloaf is 4,020 acres of oak- and redwood-studded canyons near Kenwood, much of it in near-wilderness condition. It has a visitors center, a 47-site campground and 25 miles of trails.

It contains the headwaters of Sonoma Creek, where native salmon and steelhead still migrate to the sea. It was once home to a Wappo Indian village, where the residents held off early Spanish invaders.

Now it sees other conflicts.

Two years ago, an illegal marijuana plantation was found on a remote mountainside overlooking Sonoma Creek. There were filthy grower camps, garbage dumps, illegal trails, stream diversions and more than 4,500 marijuana plants. It took thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours to clean up.

Such realities weighed heavily when Team Sugarloaf contemplated running the park. In the end, Dale said, the members felt they had little choice but to step in.

"We were not going to let something happen to the park," Dale said. "It's too important to the ecology of the valley."

Team Sugarloaf consists of five nonprofits: Sonoma Ecology Center; Valley of the Moon Observatory Association (which runs an astronomical observatory in the park); Valley of the Moon Natural History Association; Sonoma County Trails Council; and United Camps, Conferences and Retreats.

The group still does not have a signed contract with the state parks department, where a depleted staff is struggling to manage the ongoing closure process. Instead, it runs the park under a separate "early entry permit," which Dale said was essential to keep the campground functioning as the primary revenue source.

The team obtained a $50,000 grant from the California State Parks Foundation to cover startup costs. It estimates annual operating costs at $250,000, which it hopes to cover from visitor fees.

On June 1, its first day in the park, the group mobilized volunteers to prepare the campground by cleaning fire pits, campsites and restrooms, and removing rattlesnakes – five of them, as it turned out.

Scott Courtright, the campground manager employed by United Camps, Conferences and Retreats, distinguished himself as the snake handler.

For this risky task, he now carries a metal bucket and "snake stick" in the back of his personal vehicle, a faded green Ford Explorer, nearly 20 years old, which is the most prominent official automobile in the park. It wears Team Sugarloaf magnetic signs stuck to the sides.

The only state vehicle still operating in the park is an electric golf cart Courtright uses for his rounds in the campground. Dead batteries left it mothballed in a barn at the park for five years. Dale revived it by calling the manufacturer, which sent a repairman out to install new batteries at a cost of $685.

'Startup' gets to work

On Thursday, the team made its first visit to the top of Bald Mountain, the highest point in the park at 2,729 feet. They took Courtright's green Explorer which, thankfully, had just had new brake pads installed. Courtright did that job himself.

At the top, the team found interpretive signs obscured by bird droppings and worn-out plastic covers. They brought no cleaning supplies or tools, and debated how to disassemble the signs for repair.

"Well, we'll have to come back up," said John Roney, park operations manager.

A Santa Rosa management consultant, Roney also owns a sign and banner business in Chico and is a U.S. Army reservist. He called Sugarloaf "my fourth job" and was hired by Dale to work Thursdays through Sundays for at least the first two months.

"It's important for the community," Roney said. "It's also a startup, which is fun."

On Thursday, he set up a new fee payment system so visitors, for the first time, can pay with a debit card. It uses wireless Internet, with a portable printer and card reader, so fees can be collected in a visitor's campsite. The device is a first in the state park system, installed in a matter of days, Roney noted, rather than the months or years that would have been required under state contracting rules.

The team plans to install self-serve pay stations using similar technology at the kiosk and a trailhead outside the entrance, where no day-use fee was collected before. The $8 entrance fee has not changed. But Team Sugarloaf boosted the camping fee from $30 to $35 per night.

It also started new programs, such as a summer "Water Warriors" camp to teach kids about aquatic habitat ($240 per child), and special events like a Fourth of July hike to observe 18 regional fireworks displays from the top of Bald Mountain ($50 per person).

"Our goal is for this place to be just as beautiful in 100 years," Dale said. "If the state is ready to take it back on and has all the resources to do it, that would be great."

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Read more articles by Matt Weiser

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