Hidden gems

Small greenways in city offer wildlife refuge, change of scenery

Shane Romain stands just off the trail at Verbena Fields, a 20-acre former gravel quarry that’s now a dedicated wetland, riparian habitat and Mechoopda Maidu interpretive garden.

Shane Romain stands just off the trail at Verbena Fields, a 20-acre former gravel quarry that’s now a dedicated wetland, riparian habitat and Mechoopda Maidu interpretive garden.

When Shane Romain first moved to Chico more than 20 years ago, he hopped on his bike and explored. That’s how he discovered Comanche Creek Greenway and Teichert Ponds.

At the time, the two natural spaces weren’t in such good shape, he told the CN&R: Portions of Comanche Creek, in south Chico at the intersection of Park and East Park avenues, looked like a fenced-off shanty town, and Teichert Ponds—bordering Bikeway 99 off Humboldt Road—resembled a toxic waste dump.

A lot’s changed since then. For one, the city now owns those properties. And due to significant volunteer work and grant assistance, the spaces have been developed and cleaned up considerably, with dedicated, tree-lined pathways, informational kiosks and natural habitat teeming with wildlife.

After 12 years working in the city Park Division—the last four of those as park services coordinator—Romain continues to relish spots such as these, which are smaller and less renowned than Bidwell Park. There are at least a dozen such green spaces sprinkled throughout Chico, he said.

“They’re more intimate [and] accessible to the neighborhood,” he said. “Oftentimes in these smaller pockets, the chances of seeing wildlife increase because they’re not as populated.”

Though they’ve certainly come a long way since their unmanaged days, these spaces are always in need of TLC, he said. The city has four park maintenance workers, and their main task is the crown jewel: the 3,670 acres that make up Bidwell Park. The division uses contractors to keep up basic maintenance on its other green spaces, but it doesn’t cover everything.

That’s where volunteers come in. Two weekends ago, Chico Rotary and Chico Community Watch members assembled to clean up Mercer Grove. The small patch of shaded natural space between Mangrove and East Lindo avenues is visible from the bustling roadway, but easy to miss.

Patrick Brooks, a rotary member, spearheaded the project. He has been familiar with the grove since he opened his business, Recognition Products, across the street four years ago. He admitted that the task was personal at first: The spot was overgrown and unkempt. Once Brooks started learning about the park and its history, however, he grew more invested.

The space honors Gene Mercer, a beloved dedicated local game warden. Mercer’s friend and fellow game warden Terry Hodges compiled Mercer’s adventures and shared them in the book Sabertooth: The Rip-Roaring Adventures of a Legendary Game Warden, published in 1988. Mercer died shortly after, and local public officials wanted to honor him, Hodges said, according to a North State Public Radio feature.

“I decided it was time to pick it up and make some changes,” Brooks said. “One of my biggest things I wanted to do was honor Gene Mercer.”

The volunteers cleared out dense brush and poison oak, and one tree was removed because it was posing a safety hazard, impeding the walkway on the Lindo Channel bridge. They’re finishing up a split-rail fence, and also will install a rock with a bronze plaque to memorialize Mercer and remind folks why the green space is there, Brooks added.

Brooks estimates 80-100 hours of volunteer labor will be completed before the rehab is finished. He envisions completing a project like this at least once per year.

“There’s little pocket parks, or things we’ve done to honor people in our community,” he said, “and I’d love for people to make [Rotary] aware of those things that have gotten lost.”

Like Mercer Grove, many of these hidden parks have an intriguing history. Teichert Ponds is an accidental wetland, formed from gravel mining in the 1960s. The ponds, which function as stormwater detainment for the city, also provide habitat for dozens of species of birds, as well as beavers, turtles, bobcats, fish and amphibians.

Steve Overlock, president of the local Altacal Audobon Society, said that with all of the development going on in Chico, these spaces preserve lush habitat for all wildlife.

“Besides being a nice, meditative space for people, it’s a nice space for birds to establish themselves … or just pass through.

“Teichert Ponds, because of the water, we get shore birds that come through, and they wouldn’t stay unless the water’s there [and] available to them.”

In the past year, the ponds have had a facelift. With the help of the Butte Environmental Council and Alliance for Workforce Development, the city has cleared overgrown vegetation and removed an unsightly chainlink fence.

It’s been refreshing to see renewed activity lately, Romain said, as outdoor enthusiasts have hopped in kayaks, explored and fished. He hopes to bring awareness to these lesser-known natural spaces within the city—in his view, the more they’re enjoyed, the more they can thrive.

“These are fantastic places for the public to visit, to appreciate and to utilize, and a lot of people don’t know about them,” he said. “People need to get out and explore more.”