With Earth Day Behind Us, a Look Back—and Forward | Sonoma Ecology Center

Thirty years ago, Sonoma came together to put on a party. Earth Day 1990 was big, with 200 million people celebrating worldwide, and Sonoma wasn’t going to be left out. A coalition of businesses, educators, parents, students, religious leaders, farmers, artists and others came together and staged an event that filled the Plaza and spilled out around town.

There were odd and interesting human-powered vehicles to try out, ceremonies and speeches, an array of tools and innovations for living more lightly on the Earth, compost and solar demonstrations. There were talks, exhibits, food and music. There were movies and free trees at the Sebastiani, and an evening dance at the Community Center.

When it was over, we took stock and asked ourselves what we’d learned. And we realized that, when it came to celebrating this special place and the desire to take better care of it, many of us, from different parts of the community, truly cared. We also saw that the real work still lay before us.

Those realizations led to us forming the Sonoma Ecology Center. It was a foundation for a community that takes its environment, and its community of connections, seriously.

Three decades later, most of us who recall that day in 1990 are stuck at home, thinking about a time before mass quarantines, impacts of a warming climate, the Internet, and polarizing communication. How do we even begin to think positively about the future?

The answer now may be the same as it was then. We live in a narrow Valley, which forces us to interact and work together, giving us an edge if we care to use it. That’s what we’ve done most of the time over the years, and we have a lot to show for it, including many environmental accomplishments. Below are a few examples—and in several of them we are pioneers.

We started recycling more, and now divert a majority of our waste. We protected our City’s hillside backdrop, creating the Sonoma Overlook Trail and Montini Preserve. We made a park out of a ditch that ran through southeast Sonoma, now the Nathanson Creek Preserve. We created one of the first wildlife corridor projects in the region, the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, a community-led model that was shared around the world. We helped launch Sonoma Land Trust and the county’s Ag and Open Space District, and pointed them to important places, protecting tens of thousands of acres of exquisite open space here and around the county. We voted to keep our urban areas compact. We saved important farmland, improved farm planning, and our organic and biodynamic innovations have helped others around the country.

We brought environmental science to thousands of students, illuminating how we and our Valley are connected to the rest of the living world, and how to take better care of it. We created an innovative model to run fiscally challenged state parks, relying on local volunteers and collaboration. We were early adopters of renewable energy and related programs. We restored miles of streams and planted tens of thousands of native trees and plants. We came together to understand groundwater, and how to manage it more sustainably. We passed an ordinance to regulate hillside agriculture and a general plan that protected stream corridors. We preserved open space lands at SDC, and gained the opportunity to plan its future.

We learned about wildfire, and how if we’re not prepared, it can overwhelm us, and during those horrific weeks, we also learned how much we care about each other.

We’re seeing this same spirit again. The amount of giving, and love, that this community is capable of, is perhaps the most inspiring accomplishment and lesson of all these decades.

As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and begin Sonoma Ecology Center’s 30th anniversary year, I can safely say that there is still a Sonoma out there, a place and a spirit, and it is still worthy of our commitment to keep taking care of it and each other. That’s what we hope the next 30 years brings. An even deeper realization that we’re in this together. This is the very solution our world needs now and into the future.

This letter to the Sonoma Valley community was written by Richard Dale, co-founder and executive director of Sonoma Ecology Center, and originally ran in the Sonoma Index-Tribune on April 27, 2020.