Preserving our nature
Bidwell Park gives a lot to Chico. It’s time we gave back
I’ve been lucky enough to have spent the last 11 years living in a duplex on Vallombrosa Avenue with a front-porch view of one of Bidwell Park’s groves of towering oaks. I’ve spent many gratifying hours running and hiking the park’s trails, and I’ve very much enjoyed my time living in its comforting shadow. So, one Saturday in June, I went out and hiked its 12-mile length with a plan of crafting a sort of love poem to the park.
But I changed I my mind.
It turns out that this 3,670-acre heart beating in the center of my life—and the lives of all Chicoans—is not in the best of health, and the majority of the tens of thousands of locals who benefit mentally, physically and financially from Bidwell Park’s presence, myself included, are not taking notice.
This park is where we go when we go outside. It’s where we walk, hike, bike, swim and seek shelter from summer heat. It is what the city, the university, realtors and rental companies gush over when bragging about Chico. It adds thousands of dollars to the value of every home in its vicinity. It is our great escape, and it’s right in our back yard. It’s probably what made you stay and what’s kept you from leaving. It is, for most locals, Chico’s No. 1 feature.
And, for most users, the park’s needs might not be readily apparent. You go for a bike ride through the park and nothing seems wrong. It’s still beautiful. It’s still shady. Everything seems to be adequately maintained.
But ask a member of Chico’s Park Division or someone from the small but devoted core of park volunteers, and you’ll find that the enormous job of maintaining the huge park and its facilities is only one part of the equation. Factor in budget cuts and staff reductions, and add to that the uphill battle of trying to undo decades of neglected infrastructure, miles of poorly designed trails, ecological deterioration, infestations of invasive plants and outdated and crumbling facilities, and you get a potential disaster in the making.
So, even though I did go on my hike, and it was lovely and gratifying, I also talked to some of the people working hard to keep the park healthy. Looking at things through their eyes has made me begin to change my frame of reference, and to start to see the needs of the park instead of just how it meets mine.
Big park, little money
On a recent Saturday morning, my wife, Connie, dropped me off at 7:30 a.m. at Green Gate, the trailhead for 10-Mile House Road, just off Highway 32, for my big hike.
It’s less than a 10-mile drive from downtown Chico, but this eastern section of the park is wild and huge and feels completely removed from the city. I was virtually alone in nature for the first five-plus miles of my hike, encountering only six bikers or hikers from Green Gate to the park’s northeastern boundary and turning around, crossing Big Chico Creek, and catching Yahi Trail all the way to the Diversion Dam and Bear Hole.
Much of Upper Park was not part of the 1,900-plus acres that Annie Bidwell gave to the city for Bidwell Park. The whole side of the canyon opposite where I was hiking the Yahi Trail, 1,420 acres of land south of Big Chico Creek, was purchased by the city and annexed to the park in 1995.
The new parkland on the South Rim side increased the size of the park by more than 60 percent, and yet due to budget cuts that continue to decimate public agencies (the park’s budget was reduced by $50,000 this year), Chico actually has a smaller park staff for 2011-12 than before the extra acres were added.
In the 2011 Annual Park Division Report, there’s a comparison between today and the 1988-89 fiscal year, when the total area of managed park land (including many smaller city parks) in Chico was less than 2,500 acres. There were 14 people on the Park Division staff then, and now, 23 years later, when Chico’s population has grown by nearly 40 percent and the total acres for which the department is responsible increased by more than 1,800 (to 4,317 acres), the staff has been reduced to what amounts to 12 full-time positions (not counting the city’s urban forester and street-tree maintenance staff).
That’s one director, one park analyst/volunteer coordinator, four rangers (two seasonal, two full time) and eight maintenance workers (one supervisor, two senior crew, and five workers splitting a mixture of full-time and seasonal hours) to take care of Bidwell Park (minus the parks and facilities managed by CARD, the Chico Area Recreation District), as well as many of the other parks and open spaces around town, including the City Plaza, Children’s Playground, Verbena Fields and many of the creekside greenways.
Trails to nowhere
It was dizzying to stand at the cliff’s edge trying to snap photos of turkey vultures as they launched from their marked “soaring area” over the black Lovejoy basalt formations piled on the canyon floor below. As I continued down the Yahi Trail, that dramatic, lush landscape in Big Chico Creek Canyon was a contrast to the dry grasslands ahead. Before I knew it the trail was pulling me away from the edge of the cliff, then disappearing altogether in a field choked with prickly star thistle, forcing me to smash a painful impromptu path through the grassland and brush until I picked up the Yahi again several hundred yards later.
“We have an assemblage of trails; we don’t really have a trail system,” said Park and Natural Resource Manager Dan Efseaff.
It’s been a couple of weeks since my big hike, and I’ve joined the affable park director for a tour of a mile-long section of Middle Trail that has been undergoing extensive rehabilitation by a California Conservation Corps crew thanks to a grant funded by Proposition 84.
“For example, we have a lot of linear trails going deep into the park, not a whole lot of sanctioned connecting trails. And people want that. They want to have different loops and not go straight out one trail and come back the same,” Efseaff continued, explaining the organization of Middle and Upper Park trails.
In addition to attempting to meet the varied needs of the hikers, runners and bikers who use it, the work on Middle Trail is first and foremost intended to address the long-running issue of drainage and the erosion it causes.
“The park used to have a lot of jeep trails, and back in the day the idea was that you needed to create fire breaks, so they’d use dozers. There are problems associated with those; some of that is being addressed by the trail work.”
At one yet-to-be-tended bend, Efseaff pointed out the berm created when the dozers originally carved the old road, essentially creating a river bank to hold water on the trail. But along the rerouted sections, with the berms sliced away and gentle switchbacks and dips replacing the formerly straight sections, it was plain to see how the water could now flow down the slope of the hillside and across the trail onto the meadows below.
“It really needed some rehabilitation work back in the day, and we’re suffering the consequences of actions 50 to 60 years ago.”
Another area of concern with the trails are the bootlegs created as shortcuts (or by hikers looking for official trails). The most notorious examples Efseaff pointed out were the many lines cut into the hillside leading up to the popular Monkey Face rock formation—none of which is an official trail.
“We have a lot of fall-line trails; that’s trails that go straight down the hill, and that’s capturing water in the winter and turning them into creeks, basically. Water on the trails is the worst thing you can have, and that’s most of our trails.”
Muddy trails not only degrade and erode topsoil that washes away down the trails, the mess also leads trail-goers to seek alternate routes, which just widens the mud puddles and creates even more erosion.
“The folks using the trails [on Monkey Face] have a different ethic than people way deep in the park, hiking to Salmon Hole or something,” Efseaff said, referring to the casual hikers who don’t understand the consequences—damaged vegetation, increased soil erosion, scarring the natural landscape—of stamping out new, un-planned trails.
“In a lot of respects we need to institute a land ethic for people. People love the park, but they don’t know what to do.”
It took about five lazy hours for me to hike from Green Gate to the shade on the south side of Horseshoe Lake. During the hot months, the landscape in every direction around this section of Middle Park can be pretty unforgiving. Everything is exposed and dry, all yellow, brown and … light turquoise?
These patches of color are actually one park problem that even the most casual visitor is sometimes painfully aware of. The invasive plant known as yellow star thistle—with its pale bluish-green stems and spiky yellow heads—is all over the North State, not just Bidwell Park, and it is just one of the many invasive species that, if you knew what you were looking for, you’d see how they have taken over many large sections of Bidwell Park.
“Hand-pulling really works if you’re consistent at it,” said Friends of Bidwell Park’s Susan Mason as she showed me how to remove star thistle. I’m the one volunteer to join the long-time park advocate and invasive-plant expert on a warm Friday morning for invasive-plant removal at a dry section of recently mowed grassland beside Parking Lot A in Middle Park. As I branched out on my own, the work of clearing stray star thistle from one tiny corner of the field was very satisfying.
“I identified about 30 spots where it was sort of in a confined area, and I made up a little spreadsheet,” Mason said. “I keep track of how many I’m pulling from each area, so when I come back the next year, then I know what I’ve done.”
In a PowerPoint presentation she designed for the Park Division, the opening slide defines an invasive as “[a] plant with traits that allow it to invade, persist and dominate pre-existing biological communities.” Basically, the good plants are being beaten out by the bad ones.
In Upper and Middle Park, in addition to yellow star thistle along the trails and grasslands, Spanish and French broom are encroaching upon the waterways. And in Lower Park, thickets of Himalayan blackberry and tree-choking English and Algerian ivy create huge fire hazards, while privet trees, initially planted intentionally at Five Mile, Caper Acres and along Highway 99, are constantly repopulated due in part to birds spreading the seeds eaten from trees located on private properties near the park.
Volunteers have taken huge strides in removing invasives from the park, and the Park Division’s program of rotating prescribed burns, followed by herbicide application and the planting of native grasses, is starting to show results as well.
Back up the road from a fresh burn next to Horseshoe Lake, Efseaff drove me to where Wildwood Trail meets the road by the diversion channel to show off a patch that has been worked on for two years. Like a proud father, he pulled back and admired a long stalk of golden-hued purple needle grass. “This is two years of growth. Next year, if we get a good rainfall year, that thing will fill up this whole space. There won’t be a whole lot of opportunity for annuals like star thistle and other things to get in there,” he said, adding, “It’s really good cover for wildlife, there’s a lot of insects that utilize the grass; quail and dove love the seed.”
For comparison, Efseaff points to the other side of the chain-link fence right next to the field, along the sides of a channel that are completely overrun with star thistle.
“You get a sense of what could be if we didn’t do anything,” he said.
Loving the park to death
As I reached Wildwood Avenue, I started to hear the shrieks, shouts and splashes of kids playing in the water at the Five-Mile pool. As I ambled the last five miles beneath the thick canopy of Lower Park, the same scene replayed itself all along Big Chico Creek as it flowed toward Bidwell Mansion. Winding back and forth between paths on each side of the creek I came upon dozens of smaller versions of the same scene: families parked for the afternoon at creekside picnic sites, groups of friends taking advantage of pools in the bends of creeks, the massive picnic and pool party around Sycamore Pool at One-Mile. Altogether, counting the freewheeling Chico Bicycle Music Fest gathering at Cedar Grove, there were probably somewhere between 750 and 1,000 people in the park between the Five- and One-Mile swimming holes on this warm Saturday afternoon.
According to the Park Division’s 2011 report, it’s estimated that there are more than a million visits to Bidwell Park annually. That’s more than the number of visits to Redwood and Lassen Volcanic national parks combined. Effseaff says that the park is more than a local draw, that people from all over the North State are coming as well.
And a look at the breakdown of the Park Division’s maintenance hours shows that workers have to spend the bulk of on-the-ground hours just keeping up with usage demands by cleaning, mowing, blowing and repairing facilities.
“It can be up to two hours a day of us screwing down boards, replacing boards,” Efseaff said about time spent just on daily Caper Acres inspections. “It’s kind of like you have the car that’s well past its age and it’s nickel-and-diming you.”
“[And] our restrooms are probably the oldest average age in the state. And we don’t have a very good mechanism in place for rehabilitating or replacing them. … We really have a need for 50 years or more of backlog of projects that need to be done.”
Given the current budget climate, and the fact there are no funds specifically earmarked for Bidwell Park, the Park Division isn’t likely to get a financial boost any time soon. And while I would argue that the park provides services so invaluable to Chico’s citizens that a modest tax dedicated to Bidwell Park’s health is a no-brainer, no one should hold their breath that an elected official will propose one any time soon.
“Not everybody can go out and spend 10 hours a week, but everybody who comes to the park, they can spend 15 minutes once in a while picking up trash,” Mason suggested.
It is incredible what a huge impact volunteers have already had on the park. In 2011, the amount of time donated was impressive: Between the 6,901 volunteer hours with Park Watch and the 10,474 hours of work done by the Park Division’s volunteer program and Friends of Bidwell Park (as well as other community and volunteer groups) on invasive-plant removal, native planting, litter pick-up, trail work, there was the equivalent of $400,000 worth of donated work.
But the bulk of the time is put in by a core of roughly 300 people, barely a ripple in this city of more than 86,000. There is potential for a very significant impact if even a fraction of that number gets involved and joins the volunteer ranks.
“When we started [Friends of Bidwell Park] the only volunteer thing was people could pick up trash on Earth Day, and there was monthly trail maintenance. Now, most of the volunteer hours are, except for Park Watch, for vegetation-management projects. There’s probably 20 times as much volunteerism as there was 10 years ago. But, you know, we were starting from a base of 10 volunteers.”
To help facilitate an effective and organized approach to utilizing volunteers, and to reduce the burden on staff, the Park Division has implemented a volunteer team-leader program. “The idea is to give them the training to where they can just run with a project,” Efseaff said. They’ve had one training session, and signed up about at dozen very enthusiastic leaders.
Additionally, if someone isn’t able to volunteer, both he and Mason suggested donating money directly to the Park Division.
When asked what message he’d like to send to Chicoans who want to help out, in addition to volunteering, Efseaff suggested people follow park rules—everything from staying on official trails to bagging and disposing of your dog’s poop, and to take a part in the parks process. His department and the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission are in the process of developing both a trails plan and a natural-resources-management plan for Bidwell Park, and he urged that people “get educated on the park and give us input, [and help] give us a good framework for moving forward.”
With one whole hour of weed-pulling with Mason under my belt, I’ve just barely started giving back to the park. But, it was still extremely gratifying. “We pulled 1,501 star-thistle plants,” Mason said as she jotted down our results in her log. And when I consider the fact that, if those two garbage bags of prickly corpses would’ve been allowed to grow they would’ve spread millions more yellow star-thistle plants across the park’s landscape, it motivates me to want to do much more for the park.