North Bay Voice

JenkelTreesJohn Jenkel is opinionated, overbearing, delusional and stubborn. His conspiratorial rants and paid screed-readers have delayed countless public meetings for years. But while Jenkel has been raving about ominous machinations that only he can see, a very real enemy, literally right next door, has disdainfully taken the crazed old farmer’s measure, and is coldly executing a methodical fleecing.

Decide for yourself...

SRauto1941Setting the Stage

Decades before Americans became habitually strung-out on increasingly concentrated doses of iPhones and Facebook, we developed a similarly unhealthy addiction to the automobile.

Cars allowed us to do things that were previously considered unfathomable; they turned science fiction into reality. Riding the crest of the invincibility high that cars provided, we gleefully maxed out our fossil fuel credit cards with no plan as to how we would pay them off.


At the same time that we were reveling in the veneer of omnipotence that goes hand in hand with car ownership, developers and governments were building and investing in automobile-centric infrastructure: re-paving the roads and allowing the railroad to decay; building new developments far away from town centers, while reducing the budget for public transportation. You could no longer get ahead in modern society without making a long term commitment to your car.

The Challenge

101

The Sonoma County tourism industry, as presently configured, reflects that reality.  It operates within a basic paradigm: get in your car in San Francisco, head up to Healdsburg for wine tasting, drive back home. 

But with gasoline prices skyrocketing and no end in sight, tourists are starting to think outside the car.  The idea of paying more than four dollars a gallon for the drive north is making the wine taste bitter.  Travelers are searching for cheaper, simpler, and healthier options.  Why spend all that money staring at the white line in the middle of Highway 101, when you can take the family for a bike ride in Golden Gate Park and watch the sun set over Ocean Beach for free?

Sonoma County offers an almost unlimited supply of outdoor recreation and outdoor travel opportunities, but after generations of confinement to our cars, we simply don’t know how to access these attractions.  Even if tourists wanted to experience Sonoma County’s beauty and rich cultural heritage without the use of a car, most of the area’s leading business owners, politicians, and tourism officials wouldn’t be able to guide them.  We are not familiar with our own backyard.

Problem Solving

The non-profit EcoRing is trying to educate both local residents and potential tourists about Sonoma County’s eco-travel and eco-tourismopportunities.  The first step in that process was a six day eco-travel demonstration, EcoOdyssey100, which concluded on May 7. We simulated a multi-day tourist adventure by traveling around Sonoma County, discovering the area’s natural beauty, and experiencing the local culture and history.  Other than our mode of transportation, we did exactly the types of things that tourists do when they go on vacation.  But we did not rely on cars to get around.

On May 2, EcoOdyssey100 participants started their journey with a three-day kayaking trip from Healdsburg to Forestville. In lieu of the automobile engine, the downstream meandering of the Russian River provided the energy needed to propel ourselves forward through time and space. At various points along the way, we stayed overnight at lodging facilities that offer  varying levels of creature comforts, and are also conveniently located next to natural kayak ‘take-out’ points. 

cyclistsThe following day we rode our bikes from Forestville to Santa Rosa, as the circular movements of our bike pedals happily displaced the up and down action of the engine piston.  On May 6 and 7, we traveled the SMART Train line from Santa Rosa to Healdsburg and Petaluma, sending a message to the tracks that it was time to awaken from their extended slumber. Throughout the journey, we engaged in all sorts of typical tourist activities: visiting a community farm in Petaluma, walking around downtown Windsor, celebrating Cinco de Mayo in Roseland, admiring a bald eagle on the Russian River, and going to a play in Santa Rosa.

The logistic difficulty of planning this trip was exacerbated by the lack of available information linking all these elements.  How many miles can I reasonably expect to travel on a two-day Russian River trip and where are the closest accommodations to the expected ‘take-out’ point?  I want to mix in a half-day of horseback riding at some point, is that possible?  EcoRing organizers, most of whom have lived in Sonoma County for decades, had trouble finding answers to those questions while preparing for the journey.  For the average tourist, it would be nearly impossible to plan such an endeavor.

EcoRing is working to fill that void by developing a one-stop, eco travel and tourism, information hub app for your phone. Download the app and start planning your Sonoma County eco-travel experience.  EcoRing is creating a network of restaurants, farms, cultural and history centers, non-profits, and outdoor adventure companies.  The partnership will work collaboratively to offer potential tourists an easily accessible and understandable blueprint for how to vacation in the county without a car.

Building Support

politiciansOver the course of the six day journey, Susan Gorin, Efren Carillo, Jake Mackenzie, Mike Kyes, Shirlee Zane, Noreen Evans, Mike McGuire, and Gina Belforte all either met with EcoOdyssey100 travelers or joined a section of the trip. These people are not radical activists; they are not tree sitting in remote sections of Humboldt County and dreaming up ways to save the world, while the rest of us go happily about our lives. These individuals are Sonoma County’s leading mainstream politicians, all of whom are in a position to influence resource allocation. 

It will cost money to add signage that will guide skateboarders from the end of the Rodota trail at Petaluma Ave. in Sebastopol to the beginning of the West County Trail across the street from Analy High School.  The addition of a bike trail on Bodega Ave. headed out to the beach from Sebastopol will not be free.  By showing their public support for EcoOdyssey100, the aforementioned public officials have taken the first step toward turning projects like those into a reality.

SMARTThe lynchpin to the success of Sonoma County eco-travel and tourism is the SMART Train. SMART will cheaply and efficiently bring tourists up to Sonoma County from the Bay Area.  It will allow travlers to leave their cars at home.  The adjacent bike path will give visitors the option of exploring all parts of the 101 corridor on bike or by foot.

The Masses

Train_guyWhen EcoOdyssey100 travelers rode the SMART rails on May 6 and May 7 in speeders, we were flanked throughout by curious onlookers, eager to figure out how and why the railroad had suddenly sprung to life. Latino mothers holding their newborns, crusty tradesmen stepping out for a lunch break, typical Northern California longhairs, and groups of macho twenty-something guys all greeted our passing similarly: with an enthusiastic smile and a courtesy wave.

WavingThe common thread that produced the almost uniform reaction was the universal hope for positive change.  The sight of railroad tracks returning to use makes intuitive sense to most people.  Railroad tracks are not a pre-historic artifact to be stared at and admired in a museum: they should be used to transport people and goods.

Arctic_MeltingIt is unlikely that each person who cheered us on can explain the scientific relationship between driving cars and the melting of the arctic, or even why that’s important. Only a small portion probably link the growing obesity problem amongst American children with the fact that most of those children are now riding to school in cars instead of walking or biking.  But they do know that gas prices keep going up, and they have already started to figure out ways to save money by driving less. 

Eco-travel and tourism is the next step in the process that these people have already implemented, on a smaller scale, in their own personal lives. Eco-travel and tourism means that when you’re taking a day trip or going on vacation, you can have a diverse, interesting, educational, and fun experience without the crutch of a car. 

The Next Step

zeppelinBuilding on the eco-travel and tourism momentum that was created this week, EcoRing is planning another EcoOdyssey for October, which will include a zeppelin launching in Sunnyvale.  Buttressed by the publicity that the zeppelin is expected to create, EcoRing envisions a paradigm-shifting ‘tipping point:’ a moment in time in which support for investment in eco-travel and tourism infrastructure morphs into conventional wisdom.

Trail_SignageThat moment has not yet arrived.  But in choosing their travel and tourism options, Americans are  beginning to factor in not only the bloated price of  gas, but also the massive externalized costs that are an inevitable byproduct of  our monogamous relationship with fossil fuels. We are looking for an alternative. By contributing to EcoRing and supporting public officials and business leaders who understand the need for eco-travel and tourism infrastructure, we can create a viable option for a seamless escape from the car-vacation conundrum.

Eric Black is a writer and reporter, currently embedded as a blogger with EcoOdyssey100. His daily updates on the tour can be heard morning and evening on KRCB-FM, while his posts from the Odyssey appear nightly here at NorthBayVoice.org.

Eco-Odyssey photos courtesy George Scott Zastrow

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