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Harold Appleton: A Lifetime of Stewardship

For Sonoma Land Trust, environmental stewardship is a driving force of our organization and part of everything we do – from conserving land to finding nature-based solutions for climate resilience to fostering the next generation of stewards through our educational programming.

For long-time volunteer, contractor, donor, and Professional Forester Harold Appleton, environmental stewardship has been the driving force of his entire life.

Harold credits one childhood experience in particular as igniting a spark in him. Growing up on Long Island, Harold and his friends loved playing in a nearby wetlands they called “the swamp,” even ice skating on it in the wintertime. Then one day, developers arrived and began paving over and building houses on the kids’ beloved swamp. To make it worse, the houses turned out to be structurally unsound, since they were built on unstable wetlands.

“I learned at a young age,” Harold explains, “how development can rob us of our ‘natural playgrounds.”

After attending UC Santa Cruz’s Environmental Studies program, Harold completed forestry school at UC Berkeley and began working in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park in the late 1970s, under the direction of a UC Berkeley Forestry professor emeritus named Harold Biswell.

“I was fortunate as a young man to get to work with Dr. Biswell,” Harold remembers. “At a time when it was a relatively rare practice, he was an early proponent of prescribed burning.” Harold recalls that Dr. Biswell’s teachings were similar to the traditional Indigenous practice of using ‘good fire’ as a tool for forest health. But back then, when fire suppression was the rule, Dr. Biswell came under a lot of criticism from fire professionals, foresters, and even fellow scientists and researchers who treated his ideas as being out of alignment with theirs. “Some even called him ‘Harry the Torch!’”

Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, the lessons Harold learned about ‘good fire’ from his mentor would come full circle much later in his life, including in the work he does today with Sonoma Land Trust.

While continuing to work as a forester, Harold launched a native plant nursery that he ran for 18 years, first in Mendocino and then relocating to Sonoma County. In the late 1980s, he began volunteering with Sonoma Land Trust as a monitor for the Land Trust’s Little Black Mountain property, periodically checking for signs of erosion and property line encroachment.

In the late 1990s, David Katz, the Land Trust’s executive director at the time, asked Harold if he would develop a forest management plan for Little Black Mountain, and so began another layer of Harold’s stewardship commitment to the Land Trust, this time as a professional contractor.

Through Harold’s leadership, Sonoma Land Trust has implemented a multitude of projects over the years addressing forest and wildland fuel management, property infrastructure, erosion control, and trail development to ready our preserves for educational programs and recreational activities.

Then in 2017 came the catastrophic Nuns and Tubbs fires. Of course, Harold had seen many, many wildfires over his 40 years working in forestry, but nothing prepared him for the mega-fires that ripped through Sonoma County that year.

“We knew the forests were in a very dangerous state,” he recalls, referring to the high levels of fuel loads and years of drought. “But the severity of those fires surprised everyone – the fire behavior was like nothing we’d seen before.”

Yet in the aftermath of the disaster, Harold sees a silver lining in how landowners, CAL FIRE, the Land Trust, and its partners have all come together to implement prescribed burning and fuel management on a very serious level. In his four decades as a forester, employing ‘good fire’ as he’d done with his old mentor Dr. Biswell had never been an option. Harold remembers working on forest management plans with the Land Trust in the years leading up to 2017, wishing that prescribed burning could be a management practice.

“At the back of our minds, we wanted to do the prescribed burning, but there were just too many obstacles and legal considerations,” Harold says. “Now, legislation has been passed to do precisely that.”

Even as he eases into retirement, Harold plans to continue his involvement with Sonoma Land Trust. “The fact that the Land Trust takes land stewardship so seriously is huge – it’s what keeps me going with the organization. That and the people I’ve worked with here.” He calls out his relationships with former Director of Stewardship Bob Neale, and Melina Hammar and Shanti Edwards.

“Shanti has a way of keeping me engaged,” Harold explains, “always inviting me out to different projects, whether as a volunteer, a contractor, or just plain curiosity.”

One theory of environmental stewardship categorizes stewards into three roles: doers, donors, and practitioners. Harold Appleton is someone who embodies all three roles through his partnership with Sonoma Land Trust and in his lifelong dedication to stewardship.

Harold was interviewed by CAL FIRE’s Jason Clay October 9, 2023 during the first prescribed burn at Little Black Mountain – something he helped set the stage for 20 years ago. Watch this video to learn more about his thoughts on that historic day.

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