Hands-on volunteers drive land conservancy projects

Hands-on volunteers drive land conservancy projects

By J. Stephen McLaughlin
news@mendonoma.com

Inspired by Lucy Olmstead's marker, volunteer Loren Adrian crafted and installed similar wooden markers to dignity graves of unknown occupants in the historic cemetery. Steve McLaughlin photo.

It takes more than tax-deductible donations and grant funding to realize the ambitious projects of the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy. On Saturday, the 30-year-old grass-roots conservation organization honored more than 75 hands-on volunteers at an event at its newest acquisition, the 113-acre Mill Bend property on the Gualala River.

President Tina Batt said many of the volunteers show up day after day and week after week to clear trails, remove invasive pampas grass, and maintain all the group’s coastal access projects, including the Gualala Bluff Trail, Cook’s Beach access trail, and Hearn Gulch.

This 120-year-old metal marker for the grave of Lucy Olmstead was found on the rotted wood plank in the background.  Adrian restored it with new wood "headstone." Steve McLaughlin photo.

After months of work by dedicated volunteers, with funds donated by those same volunteers, the cemetery has been cleared of overgrowth; headstones and markers have been restored, and signs have been placed throughout the cemetery with researched information about the lives of the people buried there. A rebuilt fence and restored sign defines the cemetery.

One of the most dramatic achievements so far has been the restoration of the historic Gualala Cemetery on the Mill Bend property, which was nearly invisible a year ago because of the tangled jungle of brush and overgrown trees.

After months of work by dedicated volunteers, with funds donated by those same volunteers, the cemetery has been cleared of overgrowth; headstones and markers have been restored, and signs have been placed throughout the cemetery with researched information about the lives of the people buried there. A rebuilt fence and restored sign defines the cemetery.

Mill Bend project manager Dave Shpak led volunteers on a tour of some of the trails and restoration in progress.  Steve McLaughlin photo.

Batt told the ICO that the cemetery has had more people “visiting for the right reasons,” that is, respectful historical interest.

During tours of the Mill Bend site, project manager Dave Shpak explained some of the environmental choices the organization must consider as it undertakes restoration and plan access improvements.

More information on RCLC and its projects is available at www.rclc.org.

RCLC hires Dave Shpak as Mill Bend project manager

RCLC hires Dave Shpak as Mill Bend project manager

By J. Stephen McLaughlin
news@mendonoma.com
Photo by Craig Tooley

The Redwood Coast Land Conservancy announced this week it has hired Dave Shpak of Gualala to be its first paid staffer to manage the next phases of its Mill Bend project. Shpak will come on board Dec. 7 to take over from Kathleen Chasey, who has volunteered with the project since it first started about three years ago.

Community donations, along with grants, raised $2.7 million to purchase the 113-acre parcel, which includes blufftop and riverside lands just south of downtown Gualala.

Tina Batt, president of the nonprofit RCLC, said the cost of hiring a part-time project manager was included in a state grant. Shpak will coordinate with multiple agencies to formulate a plan and develop additional grant funding for trails and habitat restoration.

Shpak is a registered member of American Institute of Certified Planners, in a 33-year career in planning and project management. His most recent position was project manager for WSP USA – California High-Speed Rail Delivery Partner. He has also been park development manager for the City of West Sacramento.

He and his wife, Susan Wolbarst (who is a reporter for the Independent Coast Observer), have been part-time residents of Gualala for 11 years, becoming fulltime about a year ago. Their son, Zach Shpak, is a nurse at Redwood Coast Medical Services in Gualala.

Gate to protect river from motor vehicle damage

Gate to protect river from motor vehicle damage

By J. Stephen McLaughlin
news@mendonoma.com

The Redwood Coast Land Conservancy will soon install a gate to protect the Gualala River from damage by motor vehicles, vice president John Walton told the ICO this week. He said the local nonprofit is applying for an emergency coastal permit for the installation on land it recently acquired after a $2.7 million fundraising drive.

The gate, which will block motor vehicle access only, should not impede pedestrians (even those carrying kayaks) from enjoying the lower Mill Bend property and its river beach, he said. Walton emphasized that the public is welcome to walk into and through the property, which is just south of downtown Gualala.

Tire ruts and other damage from trucks driving in the river bed have plagued the Gualala River for years. Wildlife experts say such impacts damage the river habitat for fish and the invertebrates on which they feed.

Walton said the lower Mill Bend has no restroom or other facilities, so it is inappropriate for overnight camping. In the past, trucks and campers have become mired in the soft sand and mud, he said.

Mill Bend campaign reaches goal

Mill Bend campaign reaches goal

By Chris McManus
news@mendonoma.com

With an outstanding response from the local community, Redwood Coast Land Conservancy announced this week that it has raised the $2.7 million needed to preserve the magnificent Mill Bend site at the mouth of the Gualala River as a permanent, community-owned park.

RCLC launched the final $600,000 phase of its Campaign to Preserve Mill Bend early this summer after securing $2.1 million in government grants. Kathleen Chasey, who said she has been involved in this project “from the very first day,” said the $2.1 million was to acquire the property, but the $600,000 is a stewardship fund.

“We can’t, as a land trust, take on a property unless we have a stewardship fund,” Chasey explained. RCLC is a small, volunteer-run nonprofit, and at first the idea of raising hundreds of thousands more was daunting, she said. So RCLC began quietly contacting potential donors and raised half of the needed stewardship funds before publicly launching this final fundraising phase.

When the organization did mount its campaign this year, “We went out there and asked the community,” Chasey said, “and they responded. It got people’s attention.”

“The community response has been amazing”, said Tina Batt, president of the local land trust. “More than 500 people have stepped up to make sure this beautiful piece of land is preserved as a park forever.”

Now that the funds to preserve Mill Bend have been raised, RCLC hopes to close escrow on the property before the end of the year and to start planning for the long-term preservation and restoration of the Mill Bend site.

The acquisition and stewardship of this property is a major undertaking for RCLC, which until now has been an all-volunteer organization. As RCLC began its work on the restoration of Mill Bend and the creation of trails and public access improvements, Batt said, “We have recognized that we will need to hire professional staff to oversee and coordinate the next phase of planning for the Mill Bend project.” RCLC is currently seeking a part- time Mill Bend project manager and has posted the position on its website.

The 113-acre Mill Bend site, located south of Gualala on both sides of the Highway 1 bridge, extends along the Gualala River estuary at the mouth of the Gualala River and, as the gateway to the Gualala River watershed, is the first step in long-term plans for a Gualala River Park.

“Now our next steps are the fun part,” Chasey said. “We’ve launched the next phase: the planning process,” she said.

RCLC recently presented an online community forum entitled “Mill Bend, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” to bring community residents up to date on next steps for Mill Bend and to gather input on community preferences. People who missed the forum can see a recording of the presentation on the RCLC website at rclc. org. People can also still leave feedback for the organization through a survey on the website as well.

Chasey said the group hopes to provide some initial results in January or February 2021.

Founded in 1992, Redwood Coast Land Conservancy is a local land trust based in Gualala and supported primarily by local volunteers and by donors near and far. In partnership with the California State Coastal Conservancy and other agencies, RCLC has set aside and protected multiple scenic public access areas along the southern Mendocino Coast, including the Gualala Bluff Trail, Cooks Beach and Hearn Gulch Preserve. RCLC also holds local conservation easements for habitat protection and enhancement.

Contributions for the Mill Bend project can be made to the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy via its website or by sending a check to P.O. Box 1511, Gualala, CA 95445.

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