Picture of Dee Swanhuyser

Dee Swanhuyser

A History of Environmental Stewardship in Sonoma County

My name is Dee Swanhuyser and I serve on the Board of Directors for Greenbelt Alliance. I have since 1978. I was born in Glendale, California. There were lots of freeways and the place just grew, grew, grew. But my family always had picnics in big parks and vacationed in the Sierra every summer for two weeks. Those were my best times as a child. I grew up in the built environment but being introduced to nature was the key. 

After going to school at San Francisco State, I bought a house in Berkeley and had two children. Then in 1976, we moved onto eight acres of beautiful redwoods Sonoma County. Right after we got here, the county was redoing the specific plan for our area and they were going to make our neighborhood into one acre parcels. I realized there wasn’t much water, so I got involved with the specific plan. I wrote handwritten notes and put them in mailboxes. It was a success. 

After that, I became involved in the general plan and People for Open Space, one of the first iterations of Greenbelt Alliance when it was primarily a research organization. 

Originally, Greenbelt Alliance was focused on research protecting agricultural and open space outside of urban areas. Gradually we added advocacy and policies, so that things could actually change. We realized that what was happening on the inside of the urban growth boundary line was just as important as the outside. It was fantastic to get the urban growth boundary in place and then the community separators. The focus kept evolving, and that’s what keeps me engaged in the work. 

Now we are working on climate resilience, which is part of what we’ve been working on all along. In addition to focusing on the land, we’re also focusing on the people. The attention to equity has been another essential evolution. 

One of the things I’m most proud of is the open space district here. I took Greenbelt Alliance’s Tools of the Greenbelt to the county supervisors and said, “We could do this.” We brought in several other counties with open space districts and learned how important they were. We got the Open Space Committee together and got the initiative on the ballot. 

Something that’s great about Sonoma County is that I can call any one of the supervisors, and they’ll meet with me. They are available for people and that makes a huge difference. They really have a responsibility to listen to us and to work with us.

The biggest challenge now is that some people are still only thinking of themselves. We’ve been trained to just think of ourselves—we need to un-train or retrain ourselves. And we need to be willing to talk to people on all sides. We need collaboration to be effective. 

Dee Swanhuyser serves on Greenbelt Alliance’s Board of Directors. She founded the Sonoma County Forest Conservation Forest Working Group in 2004 to serve private forest owners “across landscapes and through generations” by providing educational conferences, workshops, materials, and contacts to forest landowner serving agencies and non-profit organizations. She is also a co-founder of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District as well as a founder of LandPaths.

Learn about joining our Board of Directors at www.greenbelt.org/join-our-board/

Learn more about our 65th anniversary at www.greenbelt.org/65years.

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