Storm-Battered Nature Area Making Progress Toward Reopening


    The wind and rain storms which battered the Bay Area late 2022 into early 2023, led to what Friends of the Orinda Nature Area (FONA) President Erica Bains called “a perfect storm.” They created safety concerns for the nearly 19-acre, district-owned nature preserve, which forced FONA and the Orinda Union School District (OUSD) to close the area last spring.
    “Until March, the Friends secured and safely mitigated these risks with volunteer help,” said Bains.
    With fallen trees, downed branches, swollen creeks, erosion, destroyed trails and other dangers, the conditions “made it beyond doubt that there was a way to ensure anyone’s safety in the nature area,” said Bains. “The closure was necessary.”
    With San Pablo Creek bordering one side, the preserve’s meadows, forest, ponds and streams are the stage for student crafts, hikes, nature studies, games and projects.
    The school district has also been looking to expand use of the nature area to middle school students and students from other districts.
    Although falling trees are not an unusual occurrence, Bains recalls the harrowing experience of a tree coming down last spring within minutes of volunteers’ departure, and while she and colleague, FONA naturalist Toris Jaeger, were closing the area. The FONA board concluded the danger posed and the work required was significant enough to warrant the cancellation of summer programs.
    Discussions on reopening the nature area, which has hosted activities and summer camps for elementary school students for the past 45 years, began after the grounds dried up in June.
    The reopening is a process of ongoing phases developed by OUSD and FONA. The Wagner Ranch Elementary School Garden was cleared of debris in the first phase and is open for student use, thanks to $3,000 donated by the school’s Parents’ Club. Bains said a 50-foot perimeter around the area was also secured for safety concerns.
    The biodiversity garden area is strewn with tree debris and the severely damaged greenhouse needs to be replaced. Boys Team Charity, longtime garden area volunteers, have secured funding to work with FONA on restoration and East Bay Trees will handle tree-cutting.
    Superintendent Aida Glimme confirmed the charity has selected two weekends, to be announced, for clean-up efforts in the garden area.
    The nature area’s two gardens are enclosed by a fence, but accessible from Wagner Ranch Elementary. The rest of the nature area remains closed to the public while its hazards await mitigation.
    Another phase involves removing hazardous trees throughout the remainder of the nature area, estimated to cost $250,000.
    “We don’t have an estimate for additional safety of the pathways and accessibility, and that’s crucial,” said Glimme. “We have to make them ADA compliant and accessible to all our students.
    “We have a lot of necessities just to keep our main infrastructure alive. There has never been an allocation within the general fund to support the 19 acres.”
    Despite being denied a state grant for the land after applying last year, OUSD has been approved for $1.5 million in funding, with part of the proposal seeking to designate 15 acres of the preserve as open and protected space with no additional buildings.
    The district asked the state for $4.5 million through the office of Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan before the intense storm season. The funds were intended for a visitor and education center, an on-site restroom and outdoor classroom and kitchen upgrades, among others as outlined in their 2022 budget request.
    With less funding than requested, the district must determine priorities, according to Glimme. She asked the board what they value as priorities and their opinion about the allocation of some of the funding to take care of storm damage.
    “If we don’t take care of the storm [damage], we can’t do the rest of the work, because we can’t access the nature area,” said Glimme.
    OUSD is working with Bauer-Kahan’s office staff to determine the finer details of the grant, which the district is expecting to receive by the end of the calendar year. A timeline for spending the funds has not been announced, but they must be spent on area preservation.
    “We hope that with this preservation grant, you will do, and we will be here with you to do whatever it takes to make sure the other funds are secured so we can open the remaining areas of the nature area,” Bain said to the OUSD Board.
    Bauer-Kahan looks forward to future student and community enjoyment of the preserve.
    “I have seen the benefit of the nature area for my own children’s education and growth in nature,” she said. “And hope to see it reopen for all to experience.”

Andrea Madison can be reached at

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