Sonoma Preserves, a hidden gem

There is a prominent patch of greenery in the golden-brown hills east of Sonoma State University. As Lichau Road winds side-to-side through vineyards and slowly crawls uphill, trees gradually start to provide shade and cool color from above. At the end of this natural tunnel, there lies a lodge building alongside solar panels and a short wooden bridge.

This marks the entry point to Fairfield Osborn Preserve, a 450-acre area often visited by Sonoma State students and faculty. Its land occupies the duckweed- and fern-covered “Turtle Pond,” short stone fences that once signaled property divides, and part of the Copeland Creek Watershed. The reserve is one of three used by the Center for Environmental Inquiry (CEI) to promote interactive and environmentally aware learning for a variety of majors. 

CEI Director Claudia Luke said she aims to get all sorts of students involved at their preserve locations as part of the Environmentally Ready Generation initiative. 

“Everybody should understand that whatever their interest area, they need to participate in this societal challenge in the next couple decades,” Luke said.

Students and faculty from courses as diverse as political science, geography, criminal justice and art have visited the CEI preserves as part of their curriculum, according to Luke. The resources at Fairfield Osborn Preserve have provided study and project opportunities for the various majors in the past. Among these past opportunities were spots for a sculpture class to place figurines, and topographical maps of the land for geography majors.

“We can help create an experience that fits within the time they have in their curriculum,” Luke said. 

Lab methods in physical geography (GEOG 317) was one class that had the opportunity to visit Fairfield Osborn Preserve for an assignment in fall 2012. Michelle Goman, the course’s professor, said her students explored a marsh at the preserve to examine its sediments for their size and fineness. This allowed them to figure out how the marsh’s deposits changed over the years.

 “Employees like students to have diverse experience, and being outside of the classroom and working with the real world is often very different from what you get in a textbook,” Goman said.

Sonoma State students can add diversity to their work experience by participating in projects on the CEI reserves for internship units, according to Luke. Land management and water research are two available fields, but a third focuses on leadership skills: the Naturalist Training Program. Students who engage in these training sessions learn to give tours of the land to local third through fifth graders.

Suzanne DeCoursey, program lead at the Nature Ed Collaborative, oversees Naturalist Training. She said some of her fondest memories at Sonoma State’s preserves were inspired by the Naturalists’ tours, including thank-you letters and pictures sent by the elementary school students.

DeCoursey said a few of the former Naturalists she’s worked with have gone on to find jobs at places like the Petrified Forest and Muir Woods. Some have also told her about the personal benefits they took from their service at the preserves.

“I hear some students say they found a community… they didn’t feel like they really belonged anywhere at SSU, and when they went through the program they found people who they could really interact with, and they developed these deep friendships,” DeCoursey said.

Sonoma State students and faculty are not the only people allowed at Fairfield Osborn Preserve; according to Luke, the CEI’s land is open to reservations for other research projects. DeCoursey said she recommends taking a public tour. The tours begin Saturdays at 10 a.m. from Oct. 15 – Dec. 3 this semester.

Goman said she would encourage anyone to “take a hike” on Fairfield Osborn Preserve’s premises.

“You go up there and you realize you’re so close to campus, but you feel so far away from campus, because you really are in a… close but remote environment,” Goman said. “It’s just so beautiful.”