Sep 27, 2017
by David Abbott
As the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love runs its course, and Sonoma County hails the half-century mark of its Regional Parks Department, there is another local institution celebrating its 50th this year, the Sonoma County Trails Council (SCTC).
Formed in 1967, the Council has become a vital partner in the maintenance and creation of trails for recreational opportunities for both residents and visitors to the wine country.
“The original logo looked like a badge, but that was the style in the ’60s, and it was similar to the Parks logo,” SCTC Executive director Ken Wells said. “I think it was intentionally from the beginning a multi-use group of horse, hikers, bikers, etc.… As far as I know it was the first multi-use organization in the country.”
Anyone who has hiked at Fitch Mountain, Taylor Mountain, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park orAnnadel has been beneficiary of the SCTC’s trail work. As Sonoma County continues to acquire properties to maintain its rural charm, the work of non-profits such as SCTC will be a vital part of the equation.
Wells, who cut his bureaucratic chops as manager of Sonoma County’s integrated waste from 1992 to 2008, began his tenure with SCTC when he moved to Sonoma County, serving on the board, intermittently as president.
Originally a mountain biker, he was involved in advocacy for five years with ROMP (Responsible Organized Mountain Bike Peddlers)—now Silicon Valley MBA—in Santa Clara County. Later, he was involved in the formation of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition in the early part of the 21st century.
“My career path took me from Seattle to Los Angeles and then Sonoma County and thought, ‘where’s the mountain bike group?’” he said. “There wasn’t a mountain bike group, but there was the Trails Council. I heard about it thought, ‘this is a great way for human beings to live on the planet.’”
In 2010 the Council was searching for leadership when Wells stepped up take the reins.
“In 2010, I retired from the county, so I had more time on my hands,” he continued. “I was sitting at a board meeting and the question came up as to who paid the PG&E and no one was sure, so I offered to take over the administrative tasks at a stipend of six hours per week.”
At the time, there was enough in the budget for Wells to carry out the duties for six months, but it turned into a longer-term commitment than he expected, eventually leading to a full-time position.
His tenure began just in the nick of time too, as 2012 brought a series of crises to state and county parks systems that threatened to shutter several state parks and seriously curtailed the ability to maintain open spaces.
The result of that crisis was a proliferation of public-private partnerships with several local non-profits stepping into the void to help with park maintenance and management.
From the Sonoma Coast, where Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods assumed management of several coastal properties including Austin Creek State Recreation Area, to the inland parks such as Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where a partnership of five non-profit organizations—SCTC included—dubbed Team Sugarloaf have worked to maintain the parks, local non-profits have stepped into the void left by financial crisis.
“All of a sudden, everything was in turmoil,” Wells said. “But crisis was the opportunity.”
In the wake of that period, SCTC has expanded its work in the park system to include trail creation in two of Sonoma County’s most recent acquisitions, Fitch Mountain Park and Open Space Preserve in Healdsburg to Taylor Mountain Regional Park.
The Council’s first trail construction project was Sonoma Mountain’s east slope connecting the park to Jack London.
“Our most challenging project was an ADA trail at Jack London State Park,” Wells said. “It’s five feet wide and perfectly smooth, hard packed. We were measuring things to the 10th of a foot at a 3 percent grade.”
But the icing on the cake, is a $1.7 million grant approved in January 2017 to build eight additional miles of trails at Taylor Mountain, which was purchased by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District beginning in 1995. The land purchase cost about $21 million over the course of a decade.
The acquisition and preservation of large tracts of undeveloped land kicked into overdrive in 1990 when the Open Space District was created through the passage of measures A and C. The District is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax that generates about $21 million a year. That tax was extended through 2031, via the passage of Measure F in 2006.
Open Space General Manager Bill Keene believes there would have been mass park closures had it not been for non-profits stepping into the void.
“We wouldn’t have had love for parks and open space if it weren’t for them,” Keene said. “Their non-engineer work is invaluable: Trail maintenance and some of the stuff to improve Annadel could not happen without them. A strong Trails Council is our eyes and ears on the ground… They’re ambassadors.”
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