Friends or frenemies?

Upon reflection …
FoBP President Josephine Guardino takes exception to the phrase “opposition to paragliding coming from Bidwell Park Friends.” I’d formed my conclusion from a string of things, starting with her published letter last September in which she wrote, “Chico’s Municipal Code (section 12R.04.250) explicitly prohibits hang-gliding and/or paragliding within the boundaries of any city park or playground. Surely there is a purpose behind such regulation.” I read that as support for the prohibition; she says it’s an inquiry. I read the list of questions in FoBP’s comments on the environmental assessment as concerns; she says they’re inquiries. Other factors influenced my conclusion, but—bottom line—since my connecting of dots created a picture that could be drawn differently, I am not as comfortable with that specific statement as when I wrote it.

The members of Friends of Bidwell Park have become so ubiquitous in matters pertaining to Chico’s crown jewel that it can be easy to overemphasize their significance.

The group has been around only six years. While it has “Bidwell Park” in its name, its existence is not prescribed in Annie Bidwell’s deed. Moreover, it’s not officially sanctioned by the city. It’s like a booster club of park lovers.

How many? That’s not wholly clear. “Currently,” the FoBP Web site explains, “we are not a membership organization because we don’t have the resources to manage membership lists, arrange for regular member meetings, write and distribute newsletters, etc.”

There’s a seven-member board and a four-member advisory board; as for any other “Friends,” the site explains, “Anyone who volunteers in the park or contributes to organizations that directly help the park is a Friend of Bidwell Park.”

Particularly in light of the disc-golf debate, not everyone would consider that a badge of honor. Board member John Merz and Advisory Board member Tom Haithcock were anything but friendly in making their cases that the courses should be removed from Upper Park. Beyond the tone they’ve adopted, Friends members have taken hard-line, polarized stances, and they’ve unleashed the specter of litigation to potent effect.

This is not to say their influence is wholly negative. FoBP helps marshal thousands of hours of volunteer efforts in the park—beautification, maintenance and invasive-plant removal.

Moreover, the members of Friends (like all citizens) have the right to individually or collectively express their opinions, as well as pursue legal avenues to forward their agendas.

However, they presuppose much with their blanket statement of inclusion. They may consider every volunteer or contributor to park efforts “a Friend of Bidwell Park”; do all those people feel the same way? I’d venture to say no.

Take paragliding. Heading up a hill, jumping off, floating and landing in a prescribed area seems fairly innocuous—combining the physical impact of hiking and visual impact of kite-flying. The presence of mountain bikes and horses is more conspicuous, even on warm breezy days ideal for ’gliding.

Riders, of course, are welcome. Bidwell Park Fliers are not, with opposition to paragliding coming from Bidwell Park Friends.

FoBP may seem to hold a monopoly, but perception needn’t be reality. Plenty of people care about the park—people who see it as a park, not a preserve; people who see it as a place to enjoy, not vacuum-seal. The city has a volunteer coordinator (Lise Smith-Peters), and other groups (such as sixth-graders at Parkview Elementary) do work in the park—our park.

Now, I’m not calling for a ban on the Friends.

What I’m wondering is whether friends of the park might come together under another name, with a friendlier approach.

Bidwell Park Boosters doesn’t have quite the right ring, though BPB is catchy. Maybe Bidwell Park Lovers (BPL) or Bidwell is our Park (BioP) … well, that’s for a group to decide.

I can think of a few former park commissioners who’d do well as organizers. There’s a pool of energetic, engaged park users to draw from—not just disc golfers and paragliders, but also equestrians, cyclists, hikers, swimmers, rock climbers, picnickers, even naturalists with a more moderate view of environmentalism. I’m told the city has a few thousand bucks set aside in a reserve account for maintenance, and the council could allocate more, perhaps in matching funds.

The park belongs to all citizens of Chico, not just the loudest. If the Friends don’t speak for you, maybe it’s time to speak up for yourself, through words and deeds.