Paragliding sails on through

Council members are convinced it will have little environmental impact

FLY LIKE A BIRD<br>Chico paragliders desiring to fly will not longer need to drive to Potato Hill, west of Maxwell, where this photo was taken, now that the City Council has approved their sport in Upper Bidwell Park.

Chico paragliders desiring to fly will not longer need to drive to Potato Hill, west of Maxwell, where this photo was taken, now that the City Council has approved their sport in Upper Bidwell Park.

photo by robert speer

There was liftoff at the Chico City Council meeting Tuesday (June 2), and for a few moments, the council members, city staffers and others in the room were flying with the hawks and sailing above the clouds.

When Jon Stallman, head of the Bidwell Park Fliers Club, spoke to the council, many of those present heard for the first time what the sport of paragliding is all about, and their imaginations were sparked.

The group had been trying for a long time to convince the council to lift the ban on paragliding in Upper Park. Members had even spent $6,400 of their own money to pay for an environmental assessment of their proposal to use three sites on the North Rim as takeoff points and two parking lots below as landing zones.

As Councilman Larry Wahl said, lauding the group’s proactivity, “There’s not a hiker or a biker who has done that.”

The issue was potentially charged in the wake of the years-long tussle over disc golf because it represented another use of Upper Park that wasn’t hiking or biking. But when Stallman began describing the sport, it became clear that it would have little impact.

When Councilman Tom Nickell asked him what paragliders actually did, Stallman explained it in a manner that evoked hawks and eagles riding the thermals. “We’re trying to find pockets of hot air that will give us lift,” he said, “and allow us to try to go cross-country, maybe even all the way to Red Bluff. …

“We look for birds,” he continued. “We soar with them. They fly with us. It’s all-consuming when we’re up there.” He explained that paragliders try to fly as high as possible, sometimes to 8,000 or 10,000 feet, and from there they are virtually invisible to anyone on the ground.

Few people are immune to the allure of being able to fly like a bird, and council members were no exception. One by one, they asked additional questions designed to learn more about the sport: How quickly do you find lift? How long is a typical flight? How do you learn whether conditions are favorable? Which months of the year are best for flying?

City staff had recommended that paragliding be allowed on a trial basis for one year and then reappraised, that only licensed paragliders be allowed to fly, and that permits be required.

As the discussion began, both Mayor Ann Schwab and Councilman Andy Holcombe seemed to think it would be preferable to set aside two paragliding-free days—Sundays and Mondays were mentioned—so people who preferred Upper Park as it is could enjoy it.

However, after Stallman and General Services Director Dennis Beardsley both had explained that paragliding depends on extremely variable weather conditions, and that only a few days each month are right for flying, Holcombe changed his mind. Not Schwab, though: She was adamant that it would be better to proceed more cautiously.

When Nickell chimed in that “the evidence was overwhelming that [paragliding] was not going to be a problem,” Schwab barked, “How do you know?” Nickell then pointed out that the people behind the proposal had done a full environmental review and that “everything was being done right.”

Schwab agreed, but she argued that adding the sport to Upper Park was “a big change” that she couldn’t support allowing every day.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn said she, too, came to the meeting thinking “some restrictions were appropriate.” But when she learned “nature has to conspire in a perfect way” before flying can occur, she realized “nature will set its own limits.” She said she also didn’t realize the pilots went so high and were out of sight much of the time.

There was some discussion of paragliding’s potential tourism draw, of how it could be made easier for fliers to obtain permits, and whether it could spook horses (not really, one equestrian testified). And the paragliders spoke of how great it would be to fly in their own park, without having to drive two hours to a distant site.

In the end, a motion to approve sailed right through, 6-1, with only Schwab dissenting.