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Cool Water

[whitespace] Estero Americano
Michael Amsler

Nature's way: Local teens hoist a fence post near the Estero Americano in a restoration project that helps rebuild their lives. The innovative project is co-sponsored by the Sonoma Land Trust and the Family Life Center of Petaluma.

Troubled youths find healing waters at environmentally damaged estuary

By Stephanie Hiller

A A windswept hill overlooking a dazzling estuary, a group of bright-eyed youth installing a heavy fence post, and the restoration of land trampled by cattle and invaded by roads make a very pretty picture. And when these are boys whose lives were once twisted by delinquency and abuse, the scene becomes charged with social significance.

An innovative partnership between the Sonoma Land Trust and the Family Life Center of Petaluma is behind this unique project, which was the brainchild of Rick Bennett, farm and public policy adviser for the UC Cooperative Extension and also an SLT trustee. "When the kids see the benefits of their work, there's a tremendous sense of accomplishment and belonging," says Bennett.

"Initially, the kids feel apart from the land, but after a week, they see it as friendly, as also home. If these young men get a sense of the land as a viable creature, maybe when they're changing the oil in their cars, they won't dump it down the drain."

Bennett got together with David Katz, SLT executive director, to involve youth in its land restoration program for its newly acquired 86-acre parcel on the Estero Americano on the Sonoma-Marin border. "We were looking for ways to involve people with the land more than just walking around saying how beautiful it is," says Katz. The SLT has been buying and restoring Sonoma County lands since it was formed in l976, to help stop the disappearance of open space in a rural area threatened by development.

More than 30 percent of the county's open farmland--over 900,000 acres--has been lost to other uses since the 1950s. The Land Trust has more than 10,000 acres now under its protection, and over 60 volunteers who annually walk the properties to assess their condition, but the Estero project is the first time youth have been involved.

Strong winds race through tall grasses and ripple the shining waters of the estuary, which is within the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The isolated hilly grasslands on Estero Lane in Bodega Bay are a stunning landscape damaged by various types of erosion, resulting in siltation of marine breeding areas, disturbance of nesting areas, increased turbidity of the water, and raised water temperature. Home to migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, eagles, and red-tailed hawks as well as deer and small mammals, the land has been overgrazed by sheep for many years.

Native range grasses are nonexistent, and many invasive plants have begun to take hold.

Restoration of the wetlands will be visible in only one year, according to Bennett. Installation of a high-tensile fence will control grazing while allowing deer to roam freely. The road will be regraded and regraveled to reduce runoff, and existing erosion will be repaired. Some revegetation of the wetland area bordering the Estero will also be undertaken. When they revisit the land next spring and summer, kids will see the fruits of their labor. "It improves their self-esteem," Bennett says, "which is so fundamental to who we are as people."

THE YOUNG PEOPLE who come to live at the Family Life Center are youth whose sense of self has been damaged by the unfortunate things that have already happened to them in their short lifetimes. The FLC's goal is to provide a stable and nurturing environment where they can recover from the wounding they have endured, emerging with renewed confidence to make a fresh start in their lives.

"Giving the child exposure to the land in an unspoiled area--[having them] actually be able to touch the land--lets their spirit come out and play," says Jamie Goetz, wilderness program coordinator for the FLC. While kids are aware of the major threats to planetary survival, "a lot of them are pretty uninformed about the simpler things," he adds, "[like] where their water comes from, where the water goes when you flush the toilet."

The Wilderness Program, in which this restoration project will be an ongoing weekly activity, has the intent of "building a sense of community and self-confidence, [with youths] working together as a team to get things done that they wouldn't be able to do for themselves."

Out on the windy hillside, the kids look alert and engaged, as if the fresh cold gusts of air have relieved them of their masks of indifference and disdain, and reawakened their radiant innocence.

"It's cool," says Chris, 17. "It's just, like, fresh. Not at all stagnant."

He stares out across the Estero, where earlier he had noted a man driving a truck across the grasses (probably checking on his cattle, Chris surmised). "There's more stuff to look at here. It gives me, like, a good feeling. Feel more free, kinda."

Jason, also 17, had worked on the land last year. "I didn't think anything we did was going to make a difference," he says. "Now I see that it did make a difference. That makes me want to work even harder today!"

He doesn't like being out there, though, preferring the city. "But if I can help nature," he explains, "I'll do it. Nature needs a lot of help."

The rest of the boys are clumped together around the new fence post, taking turns with the tamper bar to pack the soil as hard as it had been before the post-hole digger penetrated the ground. One boy suggests they make sure it is absolutely level. Bennett walks to the back of the pickup truck to hand him a T-level.

He's been smiling all the while, telling the kids how long it takes--10,000 years--to build topsoil, pointing out where the lines of erosion are. "Thousands of years ago," he explains, "this whole place was under the ocean."

The kids are intrigued. "Oh yeah?"

For Rick Bennett, too, this work is a healing. "I've seen these boys sit down with me in a meadow and share their hearts," he concludes.

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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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