2019 was a big year for the environment in west county — in terms of activism, legislative moves and, well, nature itself, which seemed for much of the year to be in a full state of revolt.
Climate change wallops Sonoma County
The old Earth First slogan “Nature bats last” came to mind in 2019 when nature writ large made itself known in the form of fires and floods, both of which, climate scientists say, can be laid, in part, at the feet of climate change.
Climate models predict an increase in the number of extreme weather events: longer, hotter and therefore drier summers leading to larger, more devastating fires and more variable but heavier rains, particularly in coastal areas.
Sonoma County experienced both of these, which perhaps explains the uptick in climate activism in 2019.
Local governments made some moves — at least on paper — to fight climate change. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors passed a Climate Emergency Resolution on Sept. 17; Sebastopol did the same on Dec. 3.
“This is a very emotional topic for me. It’s emotional because I won’t be alive to see the worst impacts of climate change. My 7-month-old son will be the person who experiences way more than I will,” said 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, fighting back tears at the Board of Supervisors meeting.
Hopkins called for a “dramatic change” to a post-carbon economy.
“We should act like the world is on fire because it is,” she said.
Local high school students had been saying as much all year. On March 15, around 120 students from Analy, El Molino, Orchard View, Summerfield and Sunridge left class to participate in the Global Youth Climate Strike in Sebastopol’s downtown plaza, joining students from more than 100 countries around the globe in protesting what they see as political inaction on climate change. The rally was organized by Youth vs. the Apocalypse, the internship arm of 350 Bay Area, and the four local organizers were Anabelle Lampson and Ani Fowler of Orchard View School, Eleanor Jaffe of Analy and Ula Kamastrow of Summerfield School.
A few months later, Analy students Isabel Smith, Estrella Pacheco and Prisca Niedermair worked to organize students at Analy to join the Global Climate Strike on Sept. 20 in downtown Santa Rosa. Analy students walked out of class and took buses or carpooled to the event. In Sebastopol, junior high students led the climate strike in the downtown plaza.
Student climate actions continued in December, when student activists from Analy and Orchard View staged a mass die-in at Analy, in solidarity with the international climate strike on Dec. 6.
While teenagers marched, some local adults sought solutions. In November, Connor DeVane of Forestville released his film “Hike the Divide,” in which he hikes the Continental Divide Trail from Canada to Mexico, talking to climate activists along the way, who are taking on the fossil fuel industry and winning. Also seeking solutions, Sebastopol’s Tor Allen of the Rahus Institute started a series of “Carbon Conversations” at the Sebastopol Grange, which focused on solutions to the climate crisis. The conversations, which started in May, are continuing in 2020. The next Carbon Conversation, on regenerative agriculture, will be on Wednesday, Jan. 15 at the Sebastopol Grange.
In an effort to fight climate change by getting residents out of their cars, the city of Sebastopol subsidized another year of free bus service on the all-electric, zero-emission Sebastopol Shuttle. In 2019, Councilmember Sarah Glade Gurney spearheaded a program called “Bus Buddies,” to make people more comfortable with taking the bus. Local VIPs, including councilmembers, rode the bus to provide help and a friendly face for those with little experience of public transit.
The city also installed signage encouraging residents and visitors alike to forsake their cars and hoof it around town on a series of short walking tours of Sebastopol called the Sebastopol Pedline. Cittaslow’s Tasha Beauchamp personally installed Pedline curb markers by hand to guide people through each route.
Moving forward on Zero Waste
In October 2018, Sebastopol became the first city in Sonoma County to adopt a zero waste resolution, committing the city to being zero waste by 2030. The city spent much of 2019 turning that goal into ordinances.
In March, the city passed the county’s first polystyrene ban, banning the sale of anything made of Styrofoam (plates and cups, as well as pool noodles and ice chests) within city limits. This same law also banned all single-use plastic food service ware, including plastic or Styrofoam clamshell take-out containers and plastic utensils. When the ban took effect on Nov. 25, it was clear that not every business in Sebastopol had gotten the memo, despite the city’s efforts to get the word out.
Henry Mikus, engineering manager for the city of Sebastopol, said he didn’t expect full compliance with the ban right off the bat, but said ultimately, “I’m sure we can win people over. Most people want to do the right thing.”
Regarding enforcement, he said, “We’re not going to be heavy-handed. I’m not going to show up with a citation book and give you a fine. If we get a report from a member of the public, we’re just going to pay the business a visit and have a chat. We want to give them every opportunity to make it right.”
On Nov. 19, the Sebastopol City Council added a new zero waste component to the special event permit required for large events on city property, such as Ives or Libby Park. The new guidelines require event organizers to avoid the use of non-recyclable products; use reusable food service ware whenever possible; and place compost and recycling cans alongside trash cans at their event. Event organizers have to describe their zero waste strategy in their event permit application, and they and all of their vendors have to sign an agreement to abide by the zero waste guidelines.
To help west county residents green their big events, Mary Munat, also known as Green Mary, expanded her Eco-wares Library, offering a collection of ceramic plates, cups, mugs, bowls, wine glasses, silverware and table linens for up to 750 people that can be checked out and returned like library books — for a small fee.
Meanwhile, the city’s zero waste subcommittee, led by Sunny Galbraith, continued to green local events. With the help of Green Mary and local teenagers, Galbraith turned the Sebastopol Fire Department’s Annual Pancake Breakfast into a zero waste affair.
Fauna and flora
It was one step forward and one step back in 2019, when it came to the protection of local wildlife and plants.
On May 2, a city employee of the Sebastopol Public Works Department, doing what he thought was “routine maintenance” accidentally destroyed a barn swallow colony of over 200 nests on the side of the Community Center Teen Annex.
Destroying the nests of songbirds during the active breeding season is against both state and federal law.
A few days later, this employee had the bad luck to run into Veronica Bowers of Native Songbird Care & Conservation in Sebastopol, who had been tipped off to the destruction by several phone calls. After grilling the city worker about his actions, she held the city’s feet to the fire over the incident until it put policies in place to prevent this from happening in the future.
“City staff committed to institute a training program and provide informational signage at the nesting site to the rear of the Youth Annex,” said Dante Del Prete, head of Sebastopol’s Public Works Department.
Bowers said the city also agreed to make a public apology.
“They regret that the mechanisms that were in place fell through the cracks, and I’m pretty sure they’re not going to let that happen again,” Bowers said.
Meanwhile, the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation was busy trying to rebuild the population of a rare and endangered plant known as Sebastopol Meadowfoam. A water-loving plant that is dependent on grazing for its survival, Sebastopol Meadowfoam grows only in the Santa Rosa Plain, primarily in the Laguna de Santa Rosa and in one other spot near Napa. It had all but disappeared when the foundation mounted an aggressive attempt to grow the plant from seed in its nursery and replant it in areas in the laguna where it had been known to thrive in the past. Their seed collection efforts surpassed their wildest dreams, and they replanted the seeds in several areas. They’ll know by this spring whether their efforts were successful.
The continuing decline of the kelp forest off the Sonoma County coastline also got a lot of attention in 2019, including in the pages of Sonoma West. The kelp is being destroyed by purple sea urchins, which went into population overdrive when their natural predator, the starfish, fell into decline due to disease, exacerbated by warming oceans. Kaden Anderson, a sophomore at El Molino High School, won first place for his student film on this problem, “Why Seagoers Hate the Color Purple,” at the 16th annual International Ocean Film Festival in San Francisco.
Beach and river cleanups happen so often in west county, they seem like a part of regular life — thanks to people like Chris Brokate, founder of the Clean River Alliance; Cea Higgins of CoastWalk; and Sarah Heyne of Sonoma Coast Surfrider Foundation. These folks and their volunteers had a bigger task than usual this year, thanks to the tons of plastic and other trash that washed down the Russian River and onto county beaches after the flood in February, a story we wrote about in our special issue on the crisis off the Sonoma Coast, Deep Trouble.
And speaking of champion beach cleaners, Darris Nelson has walked the beaches of west Sonoma County almost every day for 30 years, picking up stuff that doesn’t belong there from plastic bottle to shoes — and once, a kayak. Her Facebook page, Mama Loves the Beach, is a testament to one woman’s love for the Sonoma Coast.
Toward the end of March, founder and longtime manager of the Occidental Bohemian Farmers’ Market, Kim Dow, announced in an email that the market — a sweet, quirky, counter-cultural mainstay of the local farmers market circuit — would not to reopen in June for the 2019 season. A group of local businesses and community members weren’t willing to see this community institution disappear. Thanks to a massive community effort, the newly christened Occidental Community Farmers’ Market opened on Friday, June 7, as usual.
“Our intention is to enable local farmers and vendors to continue to sell their products in Occidental on Fridays throughout the summer season and sustain this historically significant community gathering,” said Michael Stusser, owner of Osmosis Day Spa, who led the effort to bring the market back.
In Sebastopol, gardener Dena Allen started a Home Gardeners Produce Exchange and Donation at the Sebastopol Grange at the end of May to curtail food waste, build community and solve a common gardener’s dilemma: what to do with all that extra produce?
“Being a gardener that can’t stop planting more and more plants, I always have more than enough to share so I thought a produce exchange would be a great idea,” she said.
Gardeners brought the extra bounty from their gardens to exchange with one another, and anything that was left over got donated to the local food pantry.
Allen said the Home Gardeners Produce Exchange and Donation will start up again in 2020, probably toward the end of May. Check the Sebastopol Grange calendar in April for dates and times.
See this article on sonomawest.com for links to read the full stories about the people and events mentioned in this Year in Review article.