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Natural and Cultural History

Overview of Tolay regionTolay Lake Ranch has scenic, historic, environmental, and cultural resources that make the acquisition and restoration of this property a rare and important opportunity. The ranch has been called the crown jewel of the Sonoma Baylands, the vast stretch of former tidal wetlands at the northern margins of the Bay. Tolay sits atop the Sears Peninsula overlooking magnificent vistas of the Petaluma River and Marsh (the largest intact tidal marsh on the Bay) to the west, the Sonoma River to the east, and San Pablo Bay and beyond to the south, with unimpeded views extending to the East Bay hills and San Francisco. The interior features of the property are equally impressive, encompassing two prominent ridgelines and a wide valley containing the seasonal, spring-fed Tolay Lake, which before its draining in the early 1900s extended over more than 200 acres. The lake bottom is now used to grow pumpkins in preparation for the Cardoza’s Annual Harvest celebration that draws over 20,000 visitors to the ranch each fall.

The Ecological Context of San Pablo Bay
San Pablo Bay is one of the major subregions of the San Francisco Bay and Delta Estuary. Its original expanse of tidal marshes measured 53,000 acres, and contained large, majestic sloughs (the favored habitat of diving ducks) 60’ - 80’ deep and hundreds of yards across. Some of these sloughs were greatly constricted by levees built to create the agricultural baylands that are still used to grow low-value oat hay for silage. The entire area is the focus of a massive tidal wetlands restoration project in which TBI is the nonprofit lead in partnership with the California State Coastal Conservancy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Over half of the restorable tidal wetlands in San Francisco Bay are located along San Pablo Bay.

Tolay Lake Ranch is surrounded by a mosaic of open space and conservation easements, public wildlife areas, and other lands in the process of being preserved and restored. Attempts to acquire and restore San Pablo Bay’s tidal marshes first gained success in the 1990s with a number of acquisition and restoration projects in which TBI staff played critical roles. We are currently involved in other acquisition efforts that are part of the larger regional landscape of baylands restoration: Petaluma Marsh properties, the Dickson Ranch, the New North Point former casino site, and Skaggs Island. The Tolay land acquisition is enhanced by this integrated effort to regain some of the connections and integrity of the area’s natural systems; together, their restoration will greatly improve the chances of survival for endangered marsh and upland species and will contribute to the overall health of San Francisco Bay.

Natural and Cultural Resources
The Tolay Ranch area was undoubtedly a major, rich hunting, fishing, ceremonial, and social center for the region’s indigenous people. It is possible that early Native American construction of an earthen dam changed Tolay Lake into a permanent water body to provide summertime water and supplies of fish and waterfowl. Ecologically unique, freshwater-fed, moist grasslands still exist in the drainages around and below Tolay Lake, formed by the tight clay and silt soils characteristically proximate to the Bay. Dominated by native sedges and rushes and often containing seasonal wetland depressions, the moist grasslands support more species than drier grasslands (which often consist of non-native annuals). There are only a few remaining substantial examples of this habitat in the Bay Area.

CharmstonesMany artifacts dating back to at least 4,000 years have been found in the lakebed since it was drained, including charmstones and other items. Charm Stones are considered to have possessed spiritual power and may have played a ritual role in luring wildlife, promoting fertility, or ensuring good harvests. Most California Charm Stones are found in central California between Half Moon Bay and Bodega Bay. There is a collection of Sonoma charmstones in the Smithsonian Institution. Native American participation and guidance will be sought as part of the environmental management and restoration planning process as well as for the development of cultural education programs that would include traditional activities such as basket weaving, an art form made world famous by many California Indian communities. TBI’s Communications Director, George Snyder, a member of the Choctaw tribe, is active in local Native American affairs and has been facilitating communications with the appropriate representatives.

Environmental Assessment and Planning
While acquisition-related activities continue over the coming year, TBI staff will work closely with the Sonoma Regional Parks, Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the Sonoma Land Trust, the California State Parks Foundation, and other entities to assess the environmental management needs for the Tolay property.

Educational and Recreational Opportunities
The Tolay Ranch property provides outstanding opportunities for environmental education. A regional park would enable the creation of an interpretive center housing environmental and cultural education programs. For example,TBI’s STRAW Project completed a successful restoration on the Cardoza Ranch in February of 2003 with seventy third-graders from Sonoma County schools. They planted native vegetation on a small, denuded tributary to the Petaluma River to stabilize the creek banks and create habitat for native species.

Educational programs with partner agencies would allow students and the public to participate in environmental or scientific research and monitoring opportunities, including the restoration activities on the lake and adjacent uplands. This site offers a tremendous opportunity to learn more about the Native American culture and will give visitors the chance to learn about this culture from the descendents that once lived on the property. This project offers the unique opportunity to have members of the Native American community plan, design and implement a cultural interpretive center. In addition, this project offers an extraordinary opportunity to have the Native American community cultivate and restore large amounts of Purple Needle Grass – the official state grass.† This grass is preferred the California Indian Basket Weavers for teaching children and the community the art of basket weaving.† The conversion of Tolay Lake Ranch to a regional park will not only restore a fresh water lake, but also a way of life.