The Santa Rosa Plain used to be a great expanse of oaks and vernal pools — shallow, ephemeral ponds that form only under special circumstances. Agriculture and development did away with the vast majority, leaving only a few natural pools scattered around the plain.

Sebastopol meadowfoam (Limnmanthes vinculans)

Sebastopol meadowfoam (Limnmanthes vinculans)

Because of their characteristic flooding and drying cycles, they tend to have some of the only concentrations of native wildflowers and other plants — often endangered or rare — because the European annuals that have otherwise taken over the landscape can’t compete. One of the striking features of vernal pools is the ring of flowers that form at the edges of the drying pool, with different flowers blooming at successive stages. Locally, protected species include Sebastopol meadowfoam (Limnanthes vinculans), Sonoma sunshine (Blennosperma bakeri), and Burke’s golfields (Lasthenia burkei).

Our star special-status animal, the California tiger salamander (Ambistoma californiense), is also associated with the vernal pools that it needs to breed successfully. The California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii) is also associated with vernal pools.

These protected plants and animals have been at the center of controversy over the past decade as development has continued to destroy habitat and developers have been required to mitigate by purchasing (and restoring/creating) viable habitat elsewhere. After a number of years, the land reverts to California Fish & Game control. Although some of these mitigation banks can be seen from the road, very few actually allow public access. Sebastopol is fortunate to have one just past the city limits at the south end of town.

The Laguna Wildlife Area preserve covers some 539 acres on either side of the Laguna de Santa Rosa in several non-contiguous parcels stretching from Cooper Road in the south to about a mile beyond Guerneville Highway to the north. Various parcels have been incorporated into the preserve over time, including one formerly known as the Lagomarcino Preserve at the southern end of the LWA. Access was in dispute for some time, but visitors can now enter the preserve from Cooper Road. The local residents of Cooper Road and the surrounding area have discovered it, but the site is otherwise little known. This parcel abuts the controversial Laguna Vista residential/commercial development, which has been held up for a variety of reasons, including the 2006 discovery of Sebastopol meadowfoam growing on the property.

I recently visited the site with my family and we were treated to a variety of interesting plants in the nearly dry ponds,  swales and surrounding uplands.  Among them were many lovely Valley tassels (Castilleja attenuata). We also appreciated the numerous Valley oaks growing closer to the Laguna — a hint of what the entire plain once looked like before the oaks were cut down for charcoal. While we didn’t see any of the special status plants, salamanders or frogs, we saw a number of badger dens near the trail. American badgers (Taxidae taxus) were once plentiful in our grasslands, but are now listed by Dept. of Fish & Game as a “species of special concern.”

”]Valley tassels (Castilleja attenuata) [Greg Wolf - CalPhotos]For more information:

If you’re going:

The LWA is currently accessible in three locations:

  • Cooper Road: An unmarked,  gated access lane adjacent to 1466 Cooper Rd. leads into the southern end of the LWA. No parking available. Look for badger den entrances lining the northern end of the lane. An informal trail curves past vernal pools and swales before ending at the Laguna, with other, smaller trails branching off.
  • West County/Joe Rodota Trail: Unofficial access path  next to the eastern side of the bridge over the Laguna de Santa Rosa leads through a thicket of young Valley oaks. Parking available at the end of the trail on Petaluma Ave. in Sebastopol and in the City lot across the street.
  • Occidental Road: Access paths lead down to the Laguna from a small parking area (4 cars max.) on the east side of the bridge across the Laguna. Kayak/canoe access at the bridge and an informal trail goes along the east bank of the Laguna for nearly a mile.

Restrictions: Fishing and hunting allowed on water only.