Nestled in a hidden valley southeast of Petaluma lies Tolay Lake Ranch and an “untold story of California history,” says Philip Sales of Sonoma County Regional Parks. The parks department has teamed up with the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District to preserve and restore this scenic property as a regional park. The Open Space District holds the option to purchase the parcel through April 22, 2005, for $18 million, and the agency has already committed $9 million.
With more than two dozen freshwater seeps, the secluded valley of Tolay Creek is a “diverse freshwater habitat for wading birds, egrets, and many species of songbirds,” says local naturalist David Yearsley. Raptors soar above the surrounding ridgetops. “Every time I’ve been up there I’ve seen golden eagles.”
And it has a rich human history as well. “Thousands of charmstones were found in the lake bed,” says Arthur Dawson, historical ecologist for the Sonoma Ecology Center. Long before the several-hundred-acre lake was drained in the early 1900s, indigenous people performed healing rituals here, putting their ailments into stones that they threw into the water. The rocks, which came from locales across California, were discovered after an early settler dynamited one end of the lake in an effort to make the land suitable for growing potatoes, says Dawson.
The Cardoza family, owners of the property since the 1940s, now grow pumpkins in the former lake bottom for an annual fall festival that has brought thousands of visitors to the historic site over the past 15 years. Now, with the Cardozas willing to sell the valley to Sonoma County, park advocates are anxious to raise funds so that the land won’t be lost to development.
To purchase the 1,737-acre ranch, park advocates will work to secure the remaining funds from government sources and private donors in the next three months. “We are working very hard to realize this dream,” says Yearsley, who is chair of the grassroots group Friends of Tolay Lake Park.
To help with the campaign, find out where to attend public meetings, or learn more about the property, visit www.FriendsofTolay.org.