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New group aims to protect Petaluma wildlife

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For a few seconds, the only sound was the familiar buzz of a hot summer morning. A group of 10 people stood silent and motionless atop La Cresta Ridge in West Petaluma, listening. Then, the birds began to sing. The group of nature walk participants smiled and naturalist guide Bill Nay nodded in approval, pleased with the transaction that traded silence for song.

Nay was one of three naturalist guides that led small groups on a nature walk this past Saturday morning along the La Cresta Ridge and Kelly Creek area trails. The excursion was organized by the newly formed West Petaluma Hills Wildlife Corridor Coalition. The moment of silence was what Nay called re-observing nature. It was exactly what the group’s founder, Lydia Schindler, wanted — an opportunity for participants to learn more about the area’s wildlife and vegetation.

“I think a lot of education in nature is what we call ‘dirt time’, which is just being out in nature and seeing what calls to you,” Schindler said.

The land area in question sits opposite Helen Putnam Regional Park and is crowned by two white water towers. La Cresta Ridge is sandwiched between the Victoria and West Haven neighborhoods and has attracted interest from both developers and conservationists. For many residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, it is simply known as an area with walking trails and panoramic views.

“I’ve walked the West Petaluma Hills on a very regular basis,” said Schindler, a naturalist and longtime area resident. “I would say last year I saw a for sale sign stating it was a zone 2 (area) where homes could be developed.”

That pushed Schindler and a few other area residents to form the West Petaluma Hills Wildlife Corridor Coalition. Their main goal is to acquire the four privately-owned parcels, totaling 55 acres, in order to preserve the existing habitat in perpetuity. The five-month-old coalition is sponsored by the nonprofit Paula Lane Action Network, which preserves a nearby 11-acre region. Schindler said the coalition has begun negotiations with one land owner and is looking to reach out to the others.

While other groups have attempted similar plans in the past, Schindler emphasized the new coalition’s focus on the area as a “wildlife corridor.” Wildlife corridors are bands of habitat that essentially act as bridges. They allow wildlife to travel more freely despite the homes, developments, fences and other human-made barriers that impede movement.

The coalition’s inception within a neighborhood that itself displaced wildlife is a paradox not lost on Pat Martin, the President of the Homeowner’s Association Board of Directors.

“When we moved in here, they cut the homes out of these beautiful rolling hills and displaced all of the birds and critters,” Martin said. “When we moved in, there was no sound. There was no bird sound because the trees were twigs ... The thought of displacing all the beautiful animals next door to us is just really horrible.”

Like Martin, most attendees on the walk were residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. Original homeowners Gary and Joan VanderWerff participated in Bill Nay’s walk and had attended Coalition meetings held in neighbors’ houses. Gary VanderWerff said he joined in order to both save the hillside and to prevent the possibility of future construction projects.

“If there’s development on La Cresta, it’s going to happen through our neighborhood,” Joan VanderWerff said, “so we will have construction trucks coming right through our neighborhood.”

At the end of the walk, participants squeezed themselves under the few shade-giving trees encircling a small park on West Haven Way. Amid the sounds of cold beverages being opened, wrapping torn from pre-made sandwiches and the loud squawking nearby birds, Lydia Schindler addressed the crowd.

“We have built a lot, we have done a lot of damage ourselves,” Schindler said to the group. “But, look at what’s left. We can protect what’s left, we can protect it and do restorations. Then, we can enjoy it — and we can listen to those red shouldered hawks.”

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