Fork in the trail

As activists tussle over the future of Bidwell Park the oft-criticized city begins to plan

Luke Wagner launches a disc on Chico’s only well-laid-out disc golf course, on a bluff overlooking Upper Bidwell Park. Although work on the popular site stopped when environmental consultant Josephine Guardino threatened to sue the city for its lack of an updated management plan for the park, it continues to be used regularly.

Luke Wagner launches a disc on Chico’s only well-laid-out disc golf course, on a bluff overlooking Upper Bidwell Park. Although work on the popular site stopped when environmental consultant Josephine Guardino threatened to sue the city for its lack of an updated management plan for the park, it continues to be used regularly.

Photo By Tom Angel

Nice toss! You’re lookin’ like a birdie,” shouts a young man to his backward-cap-wearing friend, their voices carrying outward over the expansive canyon of Upper Bidwell Park.

The two are having a friendly game of disc golf on a scenic bluff just off Highway 32 about 4 miles east of Bruce Road. As aficionados know, Chico’s only well-laid-out disc golf courses are located here, on a dusty, 40-acre ridge dotted with blue-oak trees. The city acquired the site from the Bureau of Land Management in 1993, about two years prior to buying an additional 1,400 acres on the south side of Big Chico Creek that nearly doubled the park’s size.

The sport uses specially designed Frisbee-style discs and strategically placed poles that give off a tone when struck in a game of natural-environment golf. On any given weekend, you can find between 30 and 40 cars parked along the dirt pullout just off the highway. Nearby, players of various ages wing the multi-colored discs in shooting arcs across two courses designed by volunteers inspired and led by Gregg Payne, a local artist and disc golf enthusiast.

On this blustery weekday, naturalist and fellow disc golf fan Randy Abbott is walking the site. Thickly bearded and fit from regular hiking, Abbott looks like a poster boy for backwoods camping—a characterization he would surely approve. He scans the course and points to the “fairway” topsoil, which is gradually thinning from heavy foot traffic, and some blue oaks that have been hit by discs, knocking off their fragile spring chutes and affecting future growth.

“This didn’t need to happen if the city had its act together,” he says with a shrug.

As much as he loves disc golf, Abbott’s real devotion is to the health of Bidwell Park, which he believes is seriously threatened. The reason is simple: Growth-induced increased use—by mountain bikers, hikers, cars, equestrians or whomever—combined with lack of maintenance and poor city planning. Right now, he’s just hoping the park’s problems will be addressed during the city’s long overdue, upcoming review of the 1989 Bidwell Park Master Management Plan.

At the same time, he knows reaching consensus on the park won’t be easy. Some people don’t want disc golf courses. Others are hostile to the proposed Annie Bidwell Trail along the south side of Big Chico Creek. Some want to ban cars altogether. Others want to make access easier, especially to the park’s relatively pristine expansion area on the south side of Big Chico Creek.

What they all share is passion for the park. Recently, though, the more vocal and active among them have been tussling like cats in a bag, writing nasty letters to the editor and accusing each other of various perfidies. Abbott thinks it’s time for the city to step in.

“Everyone has their own micro-managed vision of how the park should be, but there has to be a synthesis,” he says. “It is such a world-class resource; the city would be foolish if it didn’t create a fundamental vision for the future.”

One person who agrees is local botanist and environmental consultant Josephine Guardino, the woman who stirred a minor tempest in February when she sent letters to the city threatening legal action over its handling of both the disc golf course and the Annie Bidwell Trail. A Chico State biology grad, Guardino runs an environmental consulting business with husband John Dittes, and both teach workshops at Chico State through the Friends of the Biological Sciences Herbarium.

With her thick brown hair and bright turquoise eyes, Guardino looks a bit like an academic-minded ex-flower child. When discussing the park, she conveys a sparkling intelligence, clear and to the point with her professional analysis. Her passion about the environment is heartfelt and seems to come from her intimate knowledge of its plants and habitats.

While not against the golf courses or trail in theory, Guardino believes both are poorly conceived and designed and could have potentially significant negative impacts on the park. She says that the environmental analysis for both was incomplete and that decisions were made prematurely, that “the planning process as it was proceeding was in violation of state environmental law"—namely, the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA—"and the city’s own planning ordinances and zoning codes.

“The environmental-review process is set up to conduct initial studies and disclose potential impacts to the public,” Guardino explains. “The whole process works by the public participating. When they don’t, it doesn’t work.”

Believing that in far too many ways the city had been lax in its Upper Park planning and that past decisions made in Upper Park were politically motivated and usually in response to a few outspoken and self-appointed “volunteer-project proponent-designers,” Guardino sent her legal notices as a “last resort” before plans were scheduled to move ahead on various projects.

The drama surrounding the legal notices heated up in the pages of this paper when it published, in its March 20 issue, a letter from local dentist Michael Jones, architect and chief proponent of the Annie Bidwell Trail. Jones attacked Guardino as “anti-people” and the leaders of her group, the California Native Plant Society, as “an embarrassment.” Gregg Payne also has weighed in as opposing Guardino’s actions.

Josephine Guardino has come under fire for insisting the city not allow further changes in Bidwell Park, including the proposed Annie Bidwell Trail, without benefit of a overall plan. A biologist by training, she’s also an environmental consultant who knows the law.

Photo By Tom Angel

“Mr. Jones and Mr. Payne appear to strongly resent proper planning if it means changes or delays to their plans,” Guardino responds. “They write about ecological complexities in simplistic ways, only to sway political opinion about their projects.”

Jones and Payne disagree with Guardino and believe that a group of hard-line environmentalists with their own agenda is running roughshod over the city.

Recognizable for his 6-foot-5-inch height and long, strawberry-blond mane, Payne is a familiar figure on the local arts scene, having painted several colorful murals and walls (the inside of the Pageant Theater, for example). As a disc golf fanatic, he almost single-handedly helped popularize the sport in Chico, so much so that Sports LTD and other stores now carry a diverse selection of game discs.

“They [Guardino and crew] are like a fanatic religious cult,” Payne argues. “They want to fence everything off and preserve everything … and they’re using nitpicky legal details to twist the good intentions of original environmental rules to their agenda.”

Payne says he initially wanted to build the disc golf course in Lower Park but decided on the Highway 32 location after public concerns expressed during early meetings. Upon conceptual approval, volunteers built the course ("Outta sight, outta mind,” Payne says) and began using it.

Not long ago, the Park Commission and City Council approved a formal plan that allotted $200,000 to finish the golf course with various environmental reviews, a new driveway, parking lot and improved access. Subsequently, landscaping and environmental studies costing $50,000 were conducted. The rest of the funding was about to be spent when then the project came to an abrupt halt around the time Guardino sent her letters.

Frustrated, Payne explains that the land where the disc course is located has been hunted on and grazed by cattle for 100 years and is nowhere near its native state. Compounding the problem, the city won’t allow him and his group to improve the site because it still is not “officially authorized” by the city.

But he goes further: Guardino, he charges, has a dual motive in threatening legal action. Yes, she wanted to make a statement about stopping park development. But she’s also looking for consultant work for herself and her partner.

“Not true,” Guardino snaps back. “We have not contracted any park-related or other city projects since the Resource Inventory of the Upper Bidwell Park Expansion Area (2000).”

Nor is she looking for work. She and Dittes are busy elsewhere. While they occasionally take small jobs around town, the two are currently working primarily on the South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan. Over the last four years, they also have had numerous contracts with Plumas National Forest conducting surveys for the Quincy Library Group’s fuel management projects.

In fact, in February 2002, when Guardino and Dittes first appealed the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission’s decision to proceed with the Annie Bidwell Trail without consideration of the need for an updated Master Management Plan for the park, they offered to do all field surveys and field GPS mapping for the environmental analysis, with a team of professional volunteers, at no charge. Guardino says she offered this nearly $100,000 worth of free services so the city could take the money needed for surveys and mapping and hire professional recreation and environmental planners to do the actual management plan.

Payne says he believes in being ecologically aware, but he also thinks that Guardino and others are missing the big picture: That increased use of the park is inevitable, and the need to promote low-impact recreational activities should be encouraged.

“One problem with these MMPs is that it’s hard to see future uses of the park,” Payne notes, citing the past 20 years of technological improvements with mountain bikes and new sports such as disc golf that were previously unheard of and could not have been planned for.

Upon receiving Guardino’s letters, the city decided it would be fiscally prudent to address all environmental and planning concerns involving future capital development with the MMP revision, itself an expensive endeavor allocated $360,000 from the General Fund. People’s frustrations were boiling over and things were getting out of hand.

One person who knows firsthand about the frustrations surrounding the issue is city Parks Director Dennis Beardsley.

In addition to being a disc golf lover, local artist Gregg Payne makes large metal chimes like these commissioned for the new Wildwood Park playground. He believes “legal nitpickers” such as Josephine Guardino are running roughshod over the city.

Photo By Tom Angel

From his third-floor office in City Hall, the bearded, professorial Beardsley walks a fine line between addressing various public concerns for park usage and the political art of generating funding. Most everyone agrees he is good at it. A smart, friendly and smooth-spoken communicator, he has more than 28 years of experience in parks and recreation and thus comes battle-tested.

Originally from Oregon, Beardsley worked planning and raising funds for county parks there, as well as at the East Bay Regional Park and the Greater Vallejo Recreational District, before moving to Chico seven years ago. The dynamics here are similar, he says, but generally the people are “more passionate.”

The existence of different opinions over how the park should be used is nothing new. It’s been going on for almost 100 years (the park’s centennial birthday is right around the corner, in 2005). When Annie Bidwell first presented her initial 1,902-acre gift of Bidwell Park to the 5,000 or so citizens of Chico, she did so with several stipulations. Among them, there was to be no alcohol, no hunting and no picnicking on Sunday, and the land was to be preserved in its natural state “for the purpose of a Public Park for the benefit of the citizens and residents of said City of Chico.”

Although the deed is no longer legally binding, and almost 1,500 additional acres have since been added to Bidwell Park, the underlying spirit of Annie’s gift lives on—especially in the hearts of those who use the park as a place to commune with nature.

While some would say it’s a good thing people are using the park—at 3,670 acres it’s one of the largest municipal parks in the country—resources are limited, and increased winter use has quickened erosion. For instance, when people walk and bike around the sides of muddy trails all winter, the trails tend to widen.

Funding for the Parks Department, which employs only eight maintenance workers, remains comparatively low and must be spread around all city parks, open-space and recreation areas. Of a total 2003-04 operating budget of $2,661,715, only a little over half goes directly to parks.

“People have gotten accustomed to just using Bidwell Park, and many take for granted that resources are limited,” says Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan. “Politically speaking, it’s easier to get funding for public safety—police and fire personnel—than fill a trail maintenance position.”

“The park has become the bastard step-child of the city,” Tom Barrett, former chairman of the Park Commission, says. “Anytime there are financial cuts, the park takes big hits.”

Barrett believes the park could especially use a full-time planner or assistant park director, and that there simply isn’t enough staff to handle everything required, from the entire park to street trees, median strips and creekside greenways.

There’s no quick fix, Beardsley emphasizes. He points to the classic question: “If we improve access [by adding roads, trails, etc.] into Upper Park, that’s going to increase use and impact the park. Is that what the community wants? That, along with Lower Park use issues, are the key questions in the upcoming plan,” he says.

One person Beardsley has certainly gotten an earful from on the access issue, as have many others involved in park politics, is local dentist and frequent trail volunteer Michael Jones.

“I never wanted to get involved in the politics of it. All I really wanted to do was trail work,” Jones says. “But in Chico, one things leads to another.”

The dentist is a slender man with soft white hands that belie his many days of hard work with pick and shovel building trails. A former national-forest worker, Jones has become notorious for his letters to local newspapers demanding more public park access and attacking, sometimes personally, those in the way.

Jones has served on the Parks Commission and received awards in the past for his work clearing areas of the Lindo Channel. But talking with him about his cherished Annie Bidwell Trail—which would create a continuous trail on the south side of Big Chico Creek from Bidwell Mansion to Ten Mile Road in Upper Park—one gets the impression of years of frustration with inconsistent park politics.

“The political discussion with the public and the elected officials regarding the Annie Bidwell Trail has been fair and fun, but the obstruction by city staff in failing to implement City Council policy for three years was a crass interference with the prerogatives of the council,” Jones explains.

Jones initially proposed the Annie Bidwell Trail as a way to restore the existing trails in the 1995 park expansion area south of Big Chico Creek, which he says are eroded and show heavy environmental impacts, and replace them where needed with a built-to-standard trail which would have much less impact—and also welcome more people to an underutilized part of the park.

Chico dentist Michael Jones has fought intensely—some might say fiercely—to obtain approval of his Annie Bidwell Trail proposal, only to see it put on hold until the city comes up with a management plan for the park.

Photo By Tom Angel

Guardino says she has never been against a modified Annie Bidwell Trail that made better use of existing trails, but she has argued long and hard that it’s a mistake for the city to base its actions on just one person’s—Jones’s—ideas about what’s wrong with and right for the park.

Both combatants have cooled lately (Jones characterizes the “smart and educated” Guardino as a kind of “annoying younger sister"), and they seem to agree that there shouldn’t be any net increase to the almost 80 miles of trails already in the park. Instead, existing trails need improvement to counter erosion.

However, Jones still believes that Guardino is working to set a much stricter interpretation of CEQA for Bidwell Park than is applied elsewhere, which “in effect transfers the park funding to environmental consultants [like her] at the expense of recreation improvements.”

Jones says the whole dispute over the park often feels like different environmental groups battling over their own interpretations. Guardino agrees somewhat when she argues that ideally the public should be deciding the trail issue, not any one person or group. While it might seem easy to label Jones a park lover who wants only “access, access, access!” or Guardino a hard-line environmentalist who wants to turn the park into a nature preserve, the truth falls somewhere in between.

Sitting on a log near the entrance to Upper Park, “Ranger Bob” Donohue looks peaceful and at home. Donohue would be the first to admit that he has one of the best jobs in Chico. He gets to spend his days in one of the most beautiful municipal parks in the country, in the presence of 100 million years of exposed history.

A friendly and good-humored guy, his cheeks reddened from constant sun exposure, Donohue has been working as the main full-time ranger for 15 years now and has seen firsthand the changes that come with a growing population and increased use.

As he climbs the steep path toward Upper Trail, Donohue points out some bootleg bike trails that cause erosion problems, especially when bikers ride their brakes downhill. The thin topsoil in the park is so fragile that it’s easy to change erosion patterns and incur non-native-vegetation growth, and invasive plants are always a problem in the park.

“But increased use from people is definitely the biggest threat,” Donohue says matter-of-factly. “We just don’t have enough staff to do the things we’d like to do.”

Among these are regular trail maintenance and reducing or eliminating some of the most invasive plants in the park, such as yellow star thistle, privet, giant reed and French and Spanish broom. Apart from a few seasonal workers, there are only two full time rangers to cover the entire park year-round.

As part of his job, Donohue knows the geologic history of the park. Currently, he says, the park is eroding a third of an inch every 100 years, but once it hits the sandstone bottom, or Chico formation, that process will speed up monumentally. It won’t happen in our lifetime, he says, but it’s coming.

From his travels and comparisons, Donohue thinks Bidwell stacks up pretty well to other parks—except in resources (it’s difficult to find a comparable-sized town with such a large park even to compare). But he says Chico continues to be innovative in making the best of the situation. The park has for the past decade used not only local volunteers but also goats in Lower Park to eat invasive weeds, the occasional prescribed burns for star thistle, and well-behaved prison crews from Salt Creek to remove troublesome blackberries and cover bootleg trails with branches.

Donohue recounts a trip he took with his wife to her native Hawaii years ago. The two were driving up a gorgeously scenic back road to her parents’ hidden home surrounded by exotic flowers, waterfalls and secluded beaches—and Donohue was snapping photos every 10 seconds.

“My wife told me that for her, it had always just been this old road to her house. She said she didn’t really ever appreciate its beauty until she saw it through my eyes,” Donohue explains. “That’s when it hit me. If someone can take a place like Hawaii for granted, think about the local people who don’t realize how beautiful Bidwell Park is.”

“The reality is that we have both an outdated plan for the park and an overall park management plan that hasn’t moved ahead quickly enough,” John Merz, director of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, says. Merz, a stocky, cheery man with a silver beard and hair who’s been a fixture in the local environmentalist community for decades, is currently working on a city measure that would help answer the real issue: Who pays for park funding in the years to come, future residents through development fees or current residents through a bond measure?

So far, the general management strategy has sought to develop local neighborhood parks to take the pressure off Bidwell Park by providing alternative spots for recreation. But critics say inadequate mitigation fees on new developments have severely hurt this strategy, and millions of dollars have been lost.

A recent study for the city and the Chico Area Recreation District by Economic & Planning Systems, Inc. showed that current park impact fees are $1,429 per single-family residence, while the consultant-recommended amount is $2,196. (At its regular meeting this week, the City Council continued discussion of a proposal to hike park impact fees to a meeting next month.)

Currently, there’s a movement calling for the city to sell development rights on the environmentally sensitive, 750-acre city-owned Bidwell Ranch property behind Wildwood Park on Manzanita to help pay for future park funding. Others, however, want to keep the land pristine because of its location at the entrance of Upper Park.

The only voice noticeably absent from the debate so far is that of the average park user. Members of the advocate group Friends of Bidwell Park (see sidebar) are asking for a public survey to be included in the MMP, and Beardsley hopes to open up a public task force for anyone who wants to be involved.

Certainly the upcoming deliberations over the Master Management Plan, which are expected to begin sometime in the next 12 to 18 months, are a prime opportunity for people to speak out and be heard. If they don’t, then the future use and care of Chico’s pride and joy may be decided by activists, small groups and politics—which is certainly not what Annie wanted.