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Sonoma Ecology Center celebrates 25 years of environmental advocacy


Sonoma Ecology Center celebrates 25 years of environmental advocacy

by Tish Levee

Give Back 25--Help Sonoma Ecology Center Celebrate

The Sonoma Ecology Center celebrated Earth Day and its 25 years of progress on ecological issues in the Valley of the Moon on April 23rd with a gala event at Ramekins in Sonoma.

The evening started off on the outdoor patio with time for networking while enjoying great wines donated by the Benziger Family Winery and noshing on delicious finger foods donated by Ramekins. Then the event moved inside for a dynamic discussion on the nature of sustainability in Sonoma Valley and what that could look like in 20-25 years.

The panel, moderated by Glen Martin, who covered environmental issues for the San Francisco Chronicle for 17 years, featured Sonoma Ecology Center Executive Director and co-Founder, Richard Dale; Caitlin Cornwall, Research Program Manager and Biologist at the Sonoma Ecology Center; Grant Davis, General Manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency; Former Napa and Sonoma County Planner Pete Parkinson; vintner Mike Benziger, a leader in biodynamic wine; and Walter McGuire, president of the Environmental Policy Center and the National Field Director for Earth Day 1990.  I can’t begin to cover everything in this wide-ranging dynamic discussion, so I’ll focus on three points.

First was the inevitable comparison of Napa Valley to Sonoma Valley. Secondly, the need for involving all the community in becoming connected to the land so they can help preserve it. Third was the need for social equity in all our decisions.

Pete Parkinson said that Napa and Sonoma County have different economies, “…while wine and tourism is big here, it’s the only thing there.” Mike Benziger agreed that Napa is almost totally dependent on tourism with wineries as the focus, while Sonoma County has the most diverse agriculture in the country. “Napa is a wine shop; Sonoma County is a gourmet store with a wine shop in it.” He explained that the tourism of the future in Sonoma County needs to be built around the entire agrarian experience, not just wine tasting. This will help small businesses and small family farms, which can only survive if they deal directly with consumer. Winery margins are so thin that, unless we learn how to support our agricultural diversity, wine making will become more and more a corporate operation.

Agreeing with what Mike and Pete said, Caitlin Cornwall added that the natural beauty of the Valley of the Moon and the sense of community here takes it out of the realm of “just a wine shop.” Glenn Martin concurred, adding that the Valley has a sense of connectiveness and asked how we could maximize that, “…what more can we do?” Caitlin replied that we have to make hard decisions about land use, including the willingness to pay for open space that includes recreational aspects and not just environmental ones. She stressed the need to connect people with the land, starting at the elementary school level. She mentioned that many young people are disconnected from the land—some kids in the Valley have never even been on rural land. As she and Mike said, “If you don’t know it, you can’t love it.”

Sonoma Ecology Center garden class students

I was pleased to hear social equity discussed as one of the keys to sustainability, along with the environment, the economy, and education. The panel discussed bringing everyone into the climate issues facing the Valley and achieving a balance between the working community and the community of privilege. In the Valley, 30% of the population is Latino, and Latinos have the lowest average income in Sonoma County. Speaking of the vineyard workers, Mike talked about the world-class workers we have, saying that nowhere else do they have workers with the skills they have in Sonoma County. He expressed concern as to how well we are doing in supporting the people who do the labor. We need to make sure they are taken care of—a big part of that is affordable housing. More denser, high occupancy housing is needed. With redevelopment funds no longer available, we need new solutions. One possibility he mentioned is developing affordable housing at the Sonoma Development Center.

Climate, water, and poverty are all related and connected. By looking at these issues together, we can create more resilient communities in which all boats can rise together. Because our electoral system is responsive to people’s feelings rather than real issues, a science-based organization such as the Sonoma Ecology Center can’t necessarily accomplish its goals through the electoral process. So just as Earth Day was a movement that started with people, we need to create a framework that will include all of us. Ninety-eight per cent of state and federal dollars are spent at the local level. Local is where it really happens, and it is where we will have to change behavior.

Sonoma Ecology Center was founded on Earth Day 1990 and has since been a real force for change in the Valley of the Moon. Richard Dale, the co-Founder and Executive Director, stressed that the Center’s real work is done by volunteers. “Volunteers make it work. We have lots more things to do,” he said as the Center launched its GiveBack25 program, asking people to give back 25 volunteer hours by next Earth Day—April 23, 2016. Just think what the Sonoma Ecology Center could accomplish if everyone joined together in giving back 25 hours of service over the coming year! (Go to for more information and to sign up.)


© 2015 Tish Levee