The warmth of spring is finally reaching out across Sonoma, bringing with it impossibly green fields and bursts of color as wildflowers show up in quantities we haven’t seen in years.

It’s a stark counterpoint to the bleak landscapes of last winter after the fires, a visual reminder how nature can heal and restore life and beauty, even from ashes.

We need this reminder. This is one of the hardest years to have witnessed in our Valley. Over 30,000 acres, 28 percent, of the land here burned in the fires, along with over a thousand structures. Thousands in our community were displaced, and many lost everything. To a person, we have a story, and this event will likely remain one of the biggest stories of our community’s deep history. We’re still writing it.

One part of this story is that we are at a crossroads. The fires made several big issues that we were dealing with even more pressing. Lack of housing. The cost of living. Disappearing local retail. Changing community character. Lack of a local, skilled workforce. An environment under stress as the services we count on from it, like water, and flood and fire protection, are diminishing. These are all connected issues. I suspect other communities have faced similar large challenges, but this is our time. Our choice is that we can join together to address these interconnected challenges, or we can react to parts of them and likely be swept along behind.

Even in an information age with large government systems, there aren’t many ways to bring such complex, multi-sector problems into focus, let alone to address them.

Interestingly, nature has models all around us that illustrate solutions to complex challenges.

There are many examples, from cells to ecosystems, that show how different elements, working together, create solutions that are durable, resilient, and greater than the sum of their parts.

There is a project, Sustainable Sonoma, that we are increasingly excited about and that shares some of these features. We think it might hold a key to resolving some if not many of these deep and challenging issues in our community.

Sustainable Sonoma is a fairly simple concept. By bringing people and their interests together from multiple sectors of our community, building a framework for safely sharing interests, and finding common goals and tools for measuring progress, we can act together to solve complex issues. If we set up the process well, it will continue to help us in the future as new issues arise.

Simple as the idea is in concept, it takes a lot of effort to make it real. For nearly three years, people from business, social service and environmental sectors have met, talked about dreams and frustrations and, importantly, started to build the framework to conduct this work.

Now, over 25 organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce, Visitors Bureau, Community Health Center, hospital, La Luz Center, the City of Sonoma, Springs Alliance, County Parks, Sonoma Ecology Center and others, have begun to meet regularly as the Sustainable Sonoma Council, and the project will soon be reaching out in listening sessions all over the community.

This fall, we’ll establish common goals and priorities, and then start to work on them. Momentum is building and it looks like Sustainable Sonoma will take hold. You can learn more at

As we approach this Earth Day on April 22, there’s a lot to be concerned about, but there’s also something happening that could help us come together to solve some big issues that we haven’t been able to deal with before.

That process, Sustainable Sonoma, could be great for the environment, and for the community.

Happy Earth Day.

Richard Dale is the executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center.

(This column by Richard Dale first ran in the Sonoma Index-Tribune on Friday, April 20, 2018.)