Commentary by Scott Hess in the North Bay Progressive of
June 27 - July 11, 2002

A Sense of Place

Why Lafferty Ranch Should Be for the Common Good

By Scott Hess

I began my literal, physical journey to Lafferty Ranch in the spring of 1992 as I started an exploratory hike up what we now call Adobe Creek.  I wanted to see the headwaters of the creek that used to flow all year round -- the creek that was one of the key places where the local indigenous population and later the European invaders had chosen to settle and live  in their respective communities.. Not too far upstream from the Petaluma River, into which Adobe Creek flows, I began to run into degradation, fragmentation, and above all-  fences.  It felt like the life force of the land had been blocked and walled off by fear,  separation and the resulting lack of respect.  Wildlife was scarce.

I was quite annoyed and depressed by this, as I had chosen to live in Petaluma several years before and felt quite devoted to it as my real Home . One day, I was complaining about the inability to access Sonoma Mountain to a woman who owned several hundred acres at the top.  She told me that City of Petaluma owned land on the upper mountain and that the wealthy neighbor next door, who she was mightily annoyed with, was aggressively attempting to buy it.  I was very surprised to learn of all this.

The City was thinking of selling its original watershed lands because of seismic problems with a dam that they had constructed on upper Adobe Creek. The City was now getting its water from the Russian River watershed to the north via aqueduct and from an increasing number of wells tapping into the groundwater below the valley floor, and they felt that their connection with the mountain and their original drinking water supply was now expendable.

I hiked Lafferty three times in the next few days and was amazed by its beauty and grandeur.  On the second visit, upon coming down to the ranch entrance where Sonoma Mountain Rd takes a sharp right angle turn, I encountered Peter Pfendler.  He told me sternly that I was  in danger of trespass and that If I had not had a City placard on my dash he would have called to have me towed away.  The place where we were standing is the historical entrance for the Lafferty property and is shown to be such by several maps beginning in the late 1800s.

Mr Pfendler and I had about a half hour discussion/debate on the merits and demerits of public access to the hills, oak groves, outcrops, meadows, plateaus, and upper tributaries of Adobe Creek that rose above us.   I said Lafferty was like a natural cathedral and that people needed access to some remaining commons on the west side of Sonoma Mountain overlooking the Petaluma Valley and entire northbay.  Mr Pfendler said it was  "much better than a cathedral" and that was precisely why no public should be allowed. I could understand his protective stance but did not fully agree.  I agreed that Lafferty really was better than a cathedral and should be protected, but did not agree that all human beings except Mr Pfendler, his workers, and his guests should be locked out of this city owned headwaters. He was unyielding and very defensive.  He wanted control.  After going around in verbal circles several times we brought the conversation to a close, got in our cars  and drove away in opposite directions. I knew this was some type of archtypal situation that would not easily be resolved.   I felt the public could embrace Lafferty and take on the serious responsibility of protecting  it.  Surely a proper plan of access could be worked out.  The benefits would much more than make up for the "costs."

To me, and to many, Sonoma Mountain is a powerful spiritual place.   A journey to any one of Lafferty's plateaus lifts one to a perspective that is whole, dramatic, complete, and beautiful.  This perspective opens us up to a direct sensual experience of the grand space and context in which we are living, evolving and growing- for better and/or  for worse.  From the ancient volcanic highlands of Sonoma Mtn I can see the wetlands and marsh surrounding the serpent-like branches of the Petaluma estuary;  the coastal hills and ridges, including Mt Tam, Big Rock Ridge, and Olompali to the southwest ;  Mt Diablo, San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland to the south. One can also see  the creeks, valleys and oak groves of the lands to the west of Petaluma -- all the way to the ocean on a clear day.  This view extends to the northern reaches of the Petaluma Valley all the way to Rohnert Park and on to the hills of Sebastopol.  One can clearly see the gap in the coastal range that allows the entrance of the ocean winds which keep the Petaluma area cool.  One sees the eagles, hawks and vultures soaring and circling overhead, and the graceful deer, whose ability to leap over fences has made them delightful  survivors in spite of their gentle nature. Unending subtleties of perception unfold from here.

As natural design would have it, a couple of weeks after these first encounters, the sale of Lafferty came up on the agenda of the Petaluma City Council. I called every community leader I could think of to tell them what I knew about the issue. I went to the City Council meeting on May 4th, 1992 and spoke about the beauty of Lafferty and the wisdom of holding it for the common good-  noting that Lafferty was an integral part of our landscape, and described my experience as best I could.  Not many people had seen Lafferty at that point, including most of the council members. Don Waxman, who had accompanied me on my second hike; and Carol Barlas, who had somehow heard about the issue, spoke for holding and opening Lafferty as well.

There was an immediate reaction and polarization among those discussing the issue. Some wanted the money and some wanted Lafferty itself.  The Petaluma Argus Courier picked up the story immediately and ran the first of many front page Lafferty articles, covering the council meeting in their May 5th  issue.  We had just lost the battle to stop the outlet mall from building in the upper Petaluma River floodplain and now Lafferty had emerged as the hot issue of the day.

It has remained a hot issue till this very moment as wave after wave of public participation has continued to rise in Lafferty's defense.  The public instinctively knows they need Lafferty and that it is a vital and important place for the south county inhabitants of all species including occassional humans.  What we have before us now is a chance to be creative with our collective intelligence, and to secure Lafferty for the present and future generations. When we allow the blocking of access to wild nature, and the destruction of the natural pathways that connect the various parts of our landscape, we end up with an angry and frustrated public.

If we really want to hear and respect the future, we should ask the youth what they think.  Simply describe the issue we are facing here if they are not aware of it already, and ask them their opinion on how to remedy the situation.  We have to be honest, humble, open, and somewhat courageous to hear the message and respond with integrity. It is only a cold pragmatism born in a fearful constricted posture that would block out the natural cry of the community heart.

I ended by asking the supervisors to support Lafferty Park with OSD funds with would help protect and open Lafferty.   They buckled (except for Mike Reilly-blessings be upon him) under fear of legal action by Peter Pfendler, who still wants control, and turned us down.  The stalemate continues as we all contemplate nature's next move.