A century in the making
On the eve of its 100th birthday, we spend a day in Bidwell Park
Annie Bidwell loved Chico Creek. Time spent along those waters passing through the Bidwell Mansion property were restorative to the early Chicoan, and 100 years ago she decided to ensure that the waters would never stop. In 1905, her gift of the original 1,900 acres of Bidwell Park promised its preservation.
Speaking on the mansion lawn at the public dedication of the park, Bidwell said that “…little children, young men and maidens, men and women of all ages; the sad, the discouraged, the happy, should enjoy this Garden of God, because He had bestowed upon me the power and the wisdom to preserve it.”
July 10 marks the 100-year anniversary of Mrs. Bidwell’s putting pen to deed to bestow the gift of Bidwell Park upon the city of Chico. To celebrate, the Bidwell Park Centennial Committee will stage an evening re-enactment of the deed signing at Bidwell Mansion. The CN&R has been celebrating the anniversary for months now, focusing on a different facet of the park every few weeks. In culminating recognition of the anniversary, we offer a mosaic of a day in the life of the park and look at the hands that will shape its future.
It’s just past 9 a.m., and Park Ranger Steve Hogue has pulled his big, white Chevy truck off Hwy 32 onto a bumpy old Caltrans right-of-way dirt road. He’s decided to begin our morning ride-along at the eastern edge of Bidwell Park, driving up past the disc golf course to stand atop the southern wall of Big Chico Creek Canyon so we can get a big picture of the scope of the park’s 3,670 acres.
It’s overcast, and the morning temperature is mild, but it’s very windy, which is disconcerting as we step around the remnants of a couple of illegal campfires a few feet from very dry brush. “This could potentially be a pretty bad thing,” Hogue says, “We don’t like to see this.”
Hogue’s tall, barrel-chested stature and buzz cut suit his position of authority as a ranger well, but as soon as he starts talking any tough-guy illusions vanish. Hogue’s a very positive guy, and his goofy, self-deprecating sense of humor is infectious as he points out the far-away landmarks of Upper Park down below—Iron Canyon, Devil’s Kitchen, Bear Hole.
We head back down Hwy 32, making a quick stop to peek at the recent vandalism at the embattled disc golf course before pulling into the empty parking lot of the Five-Mile Recreation Area. The length of the area we just traveled, six-plus miles, just to get back to the middle of the park, illustrates just how huge an area the Parks Department is charged with overseeing. Operating with a staff of nine maintenance workers and only two park rangers (temporarily down from four due to injuries), Parks Director Dennis Beardsley does an amazing job of stretching the less than $3 million budget (a third of which goes to planting and maintaining the rest of Chico’s trees) to hold the nearly six square miles of park together.
But, like many places where park funding is a low priority, it’s up to volunteer organizations to augment the city’s resources. Even high-profile municipal parks rely heavily on resources other than the city. New York City’s Central Park, for example, which is one-fourth the size of Bidwell, gets 85 percent of its funding from the non-profit Central Park Conservancy; the city’s contribution is roughly the same as Chico’s, just over $3 million in 2004.
Bidwell Park doesn’t have a giant nonprofit working on its behalf, but there are many small, volunteer groups essential to the park’s upkeep and survival: Altacal Audubon Society, Butte Environmental Council, Kids ‘n’ Creeks, Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance, Streaminders, California Native Plant Society, Chico Cat Coalition, Friends of Bidwell Park, Park Watch and a handful of neighborhood associations.
“Without volunteers we just couldn’t do it,” says Ranger Bob Donohue. Recently retired from the field due to failing knees after 16 years (he jokes that if he walked down to Bear Hole again, he wouldn’t be able to come out), Ranger Bob points out that “this park is sacred ground to all the people in Chico,” adding, “I for one think that’s a pretty good deal.
In 2004, volunteers devoted around 15,000 hours altogether to Bidwell Park, says Beardsley, agreeing that the volunteer groups are an “integral” part of the process.
“People want to be here, they’re here for a reason, and a lot of that reason centers around the quality-of-life issues that are so important,” he adds. “They want to be a part of retaining those qualities that they see as very important.”
It’s noon, and there aren’t many trees to shade us from the warm sun in the park’s Horseshoe Lake area. The scenery in this area that serves as the entrance to Upper Park is varied and very different than the continuous canopy of trees that shields most of Lower Park. To one side is the wide, dry grassy meadow that flows into the rocky, blue-oak-dotted ridge that looks over the new observatory parked beside the little, man-made lake. On the other side of the road, before you get to its long, rutty, dirt portion that leads out to the swimming holes, is the Bidwell Municipal Golf Course.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, activity in all sections of the park picks up, and today in Upper Park horses, humans and mountain bikes are just beginning to scatter across the roughly 70 miles of trails (both official and “bootleg"), as Bear Hole’s dusty parking area fills up with eager swimmers.
Of course, the disc golfers are pinging away at their tone poles up on the ridge, while just after noon, down on the golf course, two golf carts pull up to the eighth tee and a foursome of senior women step onto the cropped grass. As soon as we explain the story we’re doing, three-fourths of the women excitedly point out that the final member of their party, one Elise McClean, has also turned 100 this year.
“I started playing [here] when there was nine holes and sand greens,” she explains. A lifelong Chicoan, McClean still drives herself to the golf course and manages to fit in three rounds a week. While her tee shot passed through more trees than she wanted, she still hit it farther than this 35-year-old writer could have.
Across Upper Park Road from the golf course, just below the landmark white Easter cross, is where the wide and rocky North Rim Trail begins. This is where we meet Friends of Bidwell Park member Randy Abbott for a short, early afternoon hike. The wiry, well-spoken outdoorsman is always ready to talk about issues of preservation—especially when it comes to Bidwell Park—so as we begin up the incline, he launches right into the notion of preservation versus change.
Pointing to examples of change in the area of this entrance point to Upper Park—non-native plants (star thistle, for one) displacing native plants, the golf course, power lines, the observatory building, paved road and homes built up on the opposing ridge—Abbott suggests, “One change at time, eventually and cumulatively, represents [an overall] significant change.
“You should ask these guys,” Abbott playfully suggests, turning to a family coming down the trail with a couple of golden labs, and he does: “How come you guys come to Upper Park?”
“Because there’s not a lot of people up here, and it’s beautiful and the dogs like to run around,” answers John Mattera, a local middle-school teacher. “We were [just] talking about the viewshed, and over the years [development’s] really come along up there, and it’s starting to become little too much I think,” he adds, “It breaks up the natural beauty.”
These issues of development are at the top of the list of concerns being addressed by the city, as well as the Sacramento design firm EDAW and a Citizen Advisory Committee, as it continues to work on the updated park master management plan and environmental-impact report (please see sidebar page 15).
As Beardsley sees it, the big focus of this MMP (the last update was in 1990) is definitely on Upper Park. The 1995 addition of 1,417 acres to Upper Park along the south side of Big Chico Creek of course happened after the last update. The important questions, says Beardsley, are, “What are [our] values? What are we trying to accomplish, to do or not do?” These big questions, of course, lead to the many little questions the update committee is facing regarding preservation and recreation: Close trails? Build new trails? Parking? Disc golf course? Houses on the ridge? Planting trees? Invasive plants?
“For me, the question of what the main focus of Bidwell Park should be really goes back to Annie Bidwell and the reason she gave the park to the city and what that represented in her time period,” says Abbott, citing examples of other parks created around the same time, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone. “Creating Bidwell Park by giving it to the city is clearly of the genre of creating a preserved area.
“We’re are just supremely blessed to have this resource right next to our urban area, [and] what our community has that is natural really shouldn’t be sacrificed.”
If you see the green shirts coming, don’t ask them what time it is. Volunteers Jane McCulloch and Larry Jackson understand that having “Park Watch” in big yellow letters across their shirts can make them the butt of some good-natured ribbing, but more often the comments from park-goers are more appreciative. “Every time we’re out, someone thanks us for doing it,” says McCulloch, the president of the Parks Department’s volunteer watchdog group.
It’s 7 p.m., and the last of the sun-drained swimmers is straggling away from the pool at One-Mile as the park shifts gears, and we follow McCulloch and Jackson and Jackson’s squirrelly 2-year-old chocolate lab Libby as they make the loop from One Mile to Hwy 99 and back.
At 130 volunteers strong, Park Watch is an enormous asset. Every Parks Department employee interviewed was quick to point out the success of the program—"Without Park Watch, we’d really have some problems,” says Ranger Bob.
Essentially the eyes of the Parks Department, the volunteers go through a three-session training program to learn park policies and what to watch out for. After that, the volunteers simply continue using the park as they normally would, but for a minimum of four hours per week they don the green shirt and bring a cell phone. They don’t have the authority to issue citations, but they do explain the rules to bikers riding the wrong way or dog-walkers using too long a lead. For anything more serious, the Park Ranger or police are just a phone call away.
“I’d be taking a walk in the park anyway,” says McCulloch, who’s lived alongside the park her whole life. As we approach Caper Acres, McCulloch points out reservation notices and the posted rules as she uses her trash grabber to pick up bits of paper. The rules say dogs can’t go into the playground, so Jackson and pooch stay behind and a feisty McCulloch turns to this reporter: “I’ll take him with me. He can check the boy’s bathroom.”
On the return loop, we stop at one of the handful of memorial benches spread throughout the park, and the soft-spoken Jackson points out the plaque dedicating the spot to his last chocolate lab, Cellie.
After a few pictures with the Park Watchers, we head down a shady Vallombrosa Avenue. The houses are quiet just before sundown, and we turn off at Madrone and head 20 feet down the shady paved path into the park and sit down with Bidwell Parks and Playground Commissioner Jim Walker on the Nicole Miller memorial bench. Walker has the tan, athletic physique of an avid park user.
“I’ve been here since I was 4. In fact, my first memory was having my 5th birthday party at Hooker Oak Park, riding on the horsie swings,” Walker says. We talk about what it’s like to live so near the park, which he always has, and how if you take one step into the park during the summer, the temperature feels like it drops 10 degrees. “It’s another world,” he says.
Since Walker is one of the commissioners who will look over the proposed MMP update before it’s passed on to the City Council for final approval (and implement the final MMP guidelines), I ask him if he thinks the park in good hands for next 100 years?
“Yes it is,” he says, “We have people [in Chico] who are passionate about the park, so the park is in good hands and the future looks great because there is so much love for this [park].”