Park watchers

Volunteer groups help city manage Bidwell Park

Longtime Park Watch volunteers Sharon Stern and Edgar Ovalle in their familiar spot.

Longtime Park Watch volunteers Sharon Stern and Edgar Ovalle in their familiar spot.

Photo by brittany waterstradt

Be a park volunteer: Park volunteer orientation meeting: March 26, 6:30 p.m., in the City Council chambers. (select “Park Division”)

The term “jewel of Chico” gets tossed around quite a bit when describing Bidwell Park, the 3,670-acre nature space that started as a 1,900-acre gift to the city from local pioneer Annie Bidwell back in 1905. Today, it’s still a focal point of Chico, and for regular users, such as Park Watch volunteer Elaina McReynolds, its charm endures. “Even in the winter, it’s still so beautiful here,” she said, grinning, during a recent interview at One-Mile Recreation Area.

McReynolds is chair of Park Watch’s advisory board and has been volunteering with the program for five years. The popular group—which celebrated its 20th anniversary last fall—is made up of 126 locals who make a commitment (a minimum of four hours per month) to serve as stewards and ambassadors of Bidwell Park. With “Park Watch” scrolled in yellow across their green jackets, the volunteers are easy to spot, and just moments before our interview, McReynolds could be seen fulfilling her role by chatting with park visitors on the bridge above Big Chico Creek next to Sycamore Pool.

“We greet people and give them information about the park, pick up trash,” McReynolds explained. “But a big part of it is creating a sense of visibility. I think people feel safe when they see us, because we’re an extra set of eyes for the park.”

Two of the more visible Park Watchers are married couple Sharon Stern and Edgar Ovalle, who cover the park on their morning bike rides and post up on a park bench near Manzanita Avenue to greet park-goers. “We volunteer about 50 hours of work a month, which is a lot more than what’s required,” said Stern. “It’s gotten to the point where people get used to our schedule; people meet us at the roundabout off Vallombrosa. Once, a lady met us there to report a mountain lion sighting.”

Recently honored as Park Watchers of the Month, the couple are committed to their volunteer responsibilities, bringing along extra dog leashes for lost pets and bike pumps for riders suffering from flat tires.

“We really enjoy helping people,” said Stern, “and we want to make the park, and the city, a welcoming place.”

It’s that kind of enthusiasm that Shane Romain—a former park ranger who is Chico’s new park services coordinator—hopes to find more of in 2015. “Last year was a banner year for Park Watch. But there’s always more to be done.”

As one of the country’s largest municipal parks, it’s no surprise that Bidwell Park has a long list of ongoing infrastructure and maintenance projects, but with budget and staffing cuts in recent years—staffing levels are currently half of what they were in 2012, said Parks and Natural Resources Manager Dan Efseaff—there simply aren’t enough resources to keep the jewel of Chico adequately polished.

Now, more than ever, the park needs volunteers, especially in areas of trash pickup, trail maintenance and invasive-plant removal.

“Our biggest focus this year is to get team leaders involved in volunteer efforts,” Romain said, explaining how volunteers will be empowered to lead certain projects “to know that work is being done with a level of self-sufficiency.” Romain’s focus is not only on the volunteers of Park Watch but also those of all of the organizations working in the park, most notably from Friends of Bidwell Park and the Mount Lassen chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

Heidi Ortiz, volunteer coordinator for city of Chico Park Division, said volunteers have played a major role in recent years. “According to the annual report, we tallied 22,896 volunteer hours in 2014,” she said. “That includes everything from weed removal to grant writing to Park Watch hours.”

While that number sounds impressive, longtime park advocate Susan Mason stressed the necessity of increased financial support. “In that same annual report, it shows that funding for Chico parks, per capita, is $18.37, which is significantly lower than most cities. People really enjoy using the park, but the donations, compared to usage, are tiny.”

But even if people can’t afford to donate money, most should be able to donate at least a little time.

“Most volunteer events are really flexible, and we’ve got them all listed on our websites,” said Mason, who serves as the invasive plant chair for both Friends of Bidwell Park and the local California Native Plant Society. “Just show up with close-toed shoes. You don’t have to be particularly young or fit; my mom helped us with our plant removal projects into her mid-eighties!” According to McReynolds, the same goes for Park Watch duties. “We have our fair share of retired volunteers, but it’s a mix of all ages.”

As March quickly approaches, park advocates are preparing for spring events in the hopes of drawing more volunteers to Bidwell Park and the city’s other green spaces. In addition to the various ongoing trail maintenance and invasive-plant removal projects that the city, FOBP and CNPS sponsor, the Park Division is hosting a volunteer orientation and Park Watch training on March 26.

For her part, McReynolds wants the community to know that it doesn’t take a huge commitment for an individual to do his or her part. “People are often interested in Park Watch, but say they don’t have time. But if you have just a few hours a month to help out, you have time,” she explained.

“A lot of people complain about what’s wrong in the world, but sometimes you just have to stop and do something. For me, I take care of the park; it’s the piece of the planet I can help with.”