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Nature Foundation Marks 20 Years of Getting Kids Outdoors

With the school year underway, buses will soon climb Clinton Keith Road, west of Murrieta, transporting thousands school kids on an annual pilgrimage to an ecological wonderland located in our backyard.

An estimated 7,000 third graders will hike the trails of the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve this school year thanks to the non-profit Nature Education Foundation at the Santa Rosa Plateau. Overall 9,000 elementary, middle and high school students will participate in programs offered by the Foundation both at the plateau and in their classrooms, said Ginger Greaves, the Foundation’s long time executive director. The Foundation also grants scholarships to high school seniors pursuing studies in the environmental sciences and provides teachers with nature related classroom materials. 

Now in its 20th year, the Foundation – formerly the Santa Rosa Plateau Nature Education Foundation – pays for the busses and coordinates the volunteers needed to make this rite of passage possible for local kids, many who otherwise might not experience the wonders of nature. A recent name change better reflects the expanding role the Foundation has taken to inform and educate children and the community of the importance of environmental stewardship, said Greaves. 

“We are not exclusive to the plateau,” she said. “The name change will help people understand our role. We are the education component of the plateau, not the management of the plateau.”

The Riverside County Regional Park & Open Space District manages the sprawling reserve.  

Support for the Foundation, which has three full-time staff and several hundred volunteers, comes from local businesses and national companies, generous donors, fund-raisers, such as the upcoming September 30th Cowboy Jubilee, and memberships. 

“We have about 750 members,” Greaves said. “Their support is critical to our mission.”

Individual, family and corporate memberships are available. Membership includes annual passes to the plateau, discounts to events and other exclusive benefits. More information can be found at The non-profit has overcome challenges in recent years. The September 2019 Tenaja Fire charred nearly 2,000 acres of the plateau, damaging trails and other structures including the wooden stage near the visitor center used by the Foundation for their popular summer “Live @ the Plateau Concert Series”, a major fundraising component.

The plateau was closed to all visitors by the County Park District, including the third graders. As rebuilding was underway, and the plants and trees began to recover, the Covid pandemic struck keeping everyone inside and away.  Third graders returned to plateau on a limited basis in 2021. Last year the bulk of the students, from 10 area school districts, returned.

Recently all the hiking trails on the Santa Rosa Plateau reopened to the public. Donations are requested from all non-foundation members. 

A state-of-the-art performance stage – made of steel not wood – built largely by volunteers with donations from benefactors and used for the summer concert series and other education programs, debuted in 2022. The third-grader tours of the reserve began in 1997 with funding provided by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. When the water district’s funding dried up in 2004 the non-profit Santa Rosa Plateau Foundation was formed to continue the program. Over two decades the Foundation has transported almost 140,000 third graders to the plateau.  The wide-eyed youngsters, many pried from their couches and away from video games, are led by volunteer docents. Students also get hands on classroom time at the visitor center just off Clinton Keith Road. The ecological reserve, visited each year by tens of thousands of hikers, bird watchers and history buffs, is home to nearly 200 species of birds and about 50 threatened or endangered species of plants and animals.  The land came perilously close to being swallowed up in the tsunami of development that swept across Southwest Riverside County in the 1980s.  

In 1984 the Nature Conservancy bought 3,100 acres of plateau habitat including vernal pools, and two adobe buildings – said to be the oldest structures in the county — once used as bunkhouses for cowboys when cattle grazed on the property. In the late 1980s, when a developer proposed building 4,000 upscale homes, a golf course, and a shopping center – think Anaheim Hills – on 3,800 acres next to the reserve, a group of area residents, called Preserve Our Plateau, rose up in opposition. The developer eventually agreed to sell the property to a consortium made up of the Metropolitan Water District, Riverside County and the State of California.

Other purchases have brought the reserve to nearly 10,000 acres of natural wonder now preserved for all to explore and enjoy.

Written by John Hunneman

For three decades John Hunneman was a reporter and columnist for both The Californian and Riverside Press-Enterprise newspapers. He retired in 2020 after serving as the Communications Director for California State Senator Jeff Stone.

John currently serves on the City of Murrieta Parks and Recreation Commission and is on the Board of Directors of The Nature Education Foundation at the Santa Rosa Plateau.

He recently concluded two years of service on the Riverside County Civil Grand Jury.

John is a proud Vietnam-Era U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

He and his wife Yvonne have lived in Murrieta for 35 years. Both of their sons graduated from Murrieta Valley High School.

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