As of today, there is no public access to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and its 4,000 acres of wildlands, trails, campgrounds and Robert Ferguson Observatory.
By order of the cash-strapped state, the park is to remain closed until March 1, 2012. But local organizations have a plan to enable some public access to the park in the meantime.
“This is an indication of how real the State Park crisis is,” said Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, the lead partner for Team Sugarloaf, a group of local organizations working to keep the park from closing permanently.
“We are amazed that it has come to this, and we and our partners are doing everything we can to assure the park re-opens next spring and stays open,” he said.
The Ecology Center and its partners, including Valley of the Moon Observatory Association, United Camps Conferences and Retreats, Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, and Sonoma County Trails Council, are negotiating with the state to operate the park.
Recent legislation allows for qualified nonprofit organizations to enter into contracts with the state to operate parks that are slated for closure.
A local example is Jack London Historical Park. A coalition led by the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association is currently negotiating with the state to operate the park and avoid the planned July closure.
Until there is such an agreement in place for Sugarloaf, the park remains under state control and will be closed at least through February, Dale said.
Team Sugarloaf partners are exploring innovative ways to maintain some level of access during the closure. One idea that has initial state park support is a volunteer patrol, such as those operated by the Ecology Center on other public lands that don’t offer open access, for example, the Montini Open Space Preserve.
“A Volunteer Patrol is a great way for the public to be the eyes and ears on the ground,” said Dale. “Community members sign up, complete a short training session, and then are authorized to routinely patrol the park.
Patrol members record their observations, and bring attention to anything that might be an issue or is of interest. “It keeps the park in better shape and allows for access,” Dale said.
The Sugarloaf partners expect to hear within days if the state will let the patrol to go forward.
If so, they hope to have patrol members in the park before the holidays. There will be a cost to operate the program that Dale hopes the community will support.
Those interested in volunteering or helping to support the program can contact the Ecology Center at sonomaecologycenter.org, or the Parks Alliance for Sonoma County website.