As city’s agreement for disc golf course nears end of term, local environmentalist questions upkeep

Woody Elliott of Friends of Bidwell Park, posing at hole No. 3 at Peregrine Point disc golf course in Upper Park, believes the city and Chico Outsiders haven’t fully met their environmental obligations at the course.

Woody Elliott of Friends of Bidwell Park, posing at hole No. 3 at Peregrine Point disc golf course in Upper Park, believes the city and Chico Outsiders haven’t fully met their environmental obligations at the course.

Photo by howard hardee

The nature of the game of disc golf is that players go where their discs land, and that’s often not along the beaten path. A wayward disc undoubtedly will be found somewhere deep in thorny underbrush or tall grass, unless it’s disappeared over the edge of that damn cliff again.

Woody Elliott acknowledged as much during a recent tour of Peregrine Point disc golf course in Upper Park. White-haired and sprightly, Elliott is a retired biologist and land manager for California State Parks, and a member of Friends of Bidwell Park. He’s monitored the environmental damage caused by disc golfers at the course since it officially opened in 2011, but doesn’t hold it against the players. He knows that searching for discs can take them off the fairway, as it were.

Elliott offered another analogy to traditional golf with clubs and carts.

“You can’t keep your feet on the golf cart path, right? It just ain’t going to work—people are going to leave the trail,” he said.

The most visible damage occurs when discs slice into the blue oak trees that stud the course, knocking off leaves and branches and leaving slight indentations in trunks. But damage to the trees is likely negligible, Elliott says.

“I have a hard time thinking these little bruises are going to have a significant adverse effect,” he said, running his hands over oak bark. “Maybe over time.”

He’s more concerned with erosion around baskets and concrete tee pads, where there’s heavy foot traffic. He’d like to see wood chips laid down to prevent erosion in some areas and seeded rice straw spread in others so grass can regrow.

Such environmental mitigation measures were part of the operation agreement between the nonprofit organization Outside Recreation Advocacy Inc., aka Chico Outsiders, and the city of Chico, but the disc golf group hasn’t delivered on those promises, Elliott contends.

The initial term for the agreement, entered in 2010, was five years, terminating on June 17. While the contract is set to automatically extend for two additional five-year periods, the agreement notes that “permission is not exclusive to the operator.”

In other words, the lease on Peregrine Point is up soon, and the city can choose not to renew its agreement with Chico Outsiders.

“You’ve got to live up to your agreement, guys,” Elliott said. “If it’s not working, let’s make it work.”

For the uninitiated, disc golf is a simple game based on traditional golf, only played with flying discs. Players start at a designated tee pad and try to sink their disc into a series of chain-rimmed baskets, or pins. The vast majority of players are young men drawn to the sport for the same reasons they ride mountain bikes or go fishing and hunting—to get out into wild spaces and compete against their friends.

Peregrine Point, which sits about 4 miles east of Chico off Highway 32, is a major draw. And for good reason—the view of Big Chico Creek Canyon is sweeping and spectacular, like a painting you could reach out and touch. And the course itself is challenging, leaving many disc golfers foraging around in underbrush looking for discs.

And that’s the problem. Preservationists contend that the hard plastic discs cause too much damage to the trees and shrubs in an environmentally sensitive area, and players chasing their discs compact undergrowth and further harm vegetation.

It’s an argument as old as the course, which started in the late 1980s as a bootlegged operation on what was then U.S. Bureau of Land Management property unofficially dubbed The Bushwacker, according to CN&R archives. The city acquired the land in 1994 and added it to Bidwell Park, and in 1999 the city set about designing an official course, with the City Council appropriating $200,000 for the cause. The city then conducted an environmental impact report, concluding that Upper Park wasn’t being significantly harmed by disc golfers.

But then the city received a letter from an attorney hired by a member of Friends of Bidwell Park, which declared the study “procedurally and factually defective.” The city subsequently directed $150,000 of the money for the course to the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan—a move that angered disc golfers.

In 2008, the City Council voted to have the course removed, but disc golfers and their supporters launched a referendum and gathered 8,000 signatures—only to have the city attorney rule that the effort didn’t meet legal standards. However, then-Mayor Andy Holcombe said the people had spoken and called for a compromise in which the course would remain, under certain conditions—namely, annual studies to determine the course’s environmental impact.

In order to pay for the studies and oversee mitigation, Chico Outsiders was established.

In 2010, the city entered an operating agreement with Chico Outsiders, a volunteer organization, to construct and maintain the disc golf course in compliance with the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan. The agreement includes mandatory mitigation measures to protect plants such as the Butte County checkerbloom and Bidwell’s knotweed as well as tree-nesting raptors, cliff-nesting peregrine falcons, vernal pools, oak trees and wildflowers. (Elliott says many of these obligations have been well met by fencing off certain areas and posting warning signs in others.)

Club President Adam Filippone—who did not return CN&R’s messages as of press time—spoke of erosion and vegetation damage during a Bidwell Park and Playground Commission meeting last July, according to meeting minutes posted online. He suggested devoting volunteer hours to covering worn areas with seeded straw to address erosion, making more strategic use of disc-deflecting posts in front of trees, and adjusting the placement of baskets to decrease concentration of foot traffic.

Now, nearly a year later, straw hasn’t been laid, erosion is clearly evident—the concrete tee platforms, once at ground-level, are now several inches above the dirt—and many of the protective posts are missing or have cracked or split in half due to heat and haven’t been replaced.

The matter will come to a head at the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission meeting on June 29, when Dan Efseaff, the city of Chico’s park and natural resource manager, will present findings from the 2014 monitoring report for the course.

From Elliott’s perspective, he’d just like someone to deliver on the promises to protect the environment at Peregrine Point.

“When your mitigation measures don’t work, you use other ones,” he said. “You adapt your strategies. All they’ve done to adapt their strategies is moving baskets, or saying they’d place tree deflectors in some different spots, [and] be more strategic about it. Well, they said that, but they haven’t done diddly.”