Question of balance
Chico State University meets with heavy criticism as it hammers out a management policy for the 4,000-acre Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve
Retired Chico State biology Professor Paul Maslin squints against the brilliant blue morning sky and nods his head toward the canyon that descends nearly 2,000 feet before us, down to the rushing waters of Big Chico Creek.
“This is pretty rugged and not very forgiving country,” he says. “Get down here without the proper equipment, and you’re going to end up staying for a while.”
The gray-bearded, soft-spoken Maslin is wearing a red down vest and a floppy blue canvas hat to ward off the cool November air. Normally reserved and scholarly, the professor can barely mask his enthusiasm for the biological and geographical wonders that surround him.
“The ecology just kind of happens right out in the open here,” he says. Then he points out a wild grape vine growing out of the grassy slope. Its presence, he says, indicates a source of water close by.
Maslin is leading a tour on the newly formed, 4,000-acre Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, which is immediately east of (and considerably larger than) Upper Bidwell Park. The reserve is under the management of the Bidwell Research Institute, which is part of the Chico State University Research Foundation. That foundation is in turn a spin-off from the University Foundation, the fund-raising entity for the university.
The reserve is not a park for public recreation, say the university’s Don Holtgrieve, a geography professor who helped organize the purchase of the reserve, and semi-retired biology Professor Roger Lederer, who will mange the reserve for the institute. And that fact has rubbed a lot of locals the wrong way, particularly those who distrust the university and see it as elitist organization that cares little about the community that surrounds it.
Criticism has come from a wide range of people, including some local environmentalists, some members of the Chico City Council, and—most vehemently—local dentist and trails advocate Michael Jones, who charges that the university is trying to keep the public off land purchased, in part, with public funds.
Lederer and Holtgrieve explain that, though some of the funding to establish the reserve came from Proposition 12, the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond Act, the specific source of that money was not the park-funding element of the bond measure. It came from that funding put aside for habitat preservation.
Bordering the northeastern edge of Bidwell Park, the reserve is still in its earliest stages of evolution. The first chunk of land, 2,700 acres that straddle Big Chico Creek, was secured about year ago from the late developer Dan Drake and his partners Ed and Darwin Simmons for $3.6 million in a complex deal that involved federal and state monies and a $1.5 million grant from the David & Lucile Packard Foundation of Los Altos, issued via The River Conservancy, a land conservation program headquartered in Portland, Ore.
The purchase was in fact one of the first using money from Prop. 12, which kicked in when the state Wildlife Conservation Board unanimously approved the money. The WBC allocated the final $1.69 million of the $3.68 million price tag for the Drake property.
The deal with Drake and the Simmons was brokered by their real estate company, which approached Suzanne Gibbs, of the Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance. At the time she was working with Holtgrieve.
Last September, a second piece of land purchased through another complex funding scheme involving the WCB and Prop. 12 was added to the reserve when the foundation bought the 1,200-acre Henning Ranch property. The sprawling, rustic ranch was owned by John Frederick Henning Jr., former publisher of Sunset magazine, and his wife Francis.
Lederer and Holtgrieve say the huge reserve, which is about 10 miles northeast of Chico and runs from Musty Buck Ridge to Highway 32 and well into the foothills along Big Chico Creek, serves three primary purposes: habitat preservation, education and research. It’s home to an estimated 140 species of wildlife, including the East Tehama deer herd, bears and mountain lions. The preserve also provides habitat sanctuary, along with Deer and Mill creeks, for salmon recovery.
Lederer says the master plan for the reserve is still in the works: “We have a technical advisory committee made up of biologists, geologists and Fish and Game people. We want to establish how to manage access and education.”
That committee, he explains, will give its recommendations to the dozen or so members of a citizens’ advisory committee, which will then add its suggestions and turn a draft master plan over to Chico State University Provost Scott McNall for final adoption.
“Some people feel this is an extension of Bidwell Park,” Lederer says. “It’s not Bidwell Park. If it were, they’ve got the wrong people running it. This is not for recreation, and we don’t have the money to run it that way.”
In fact, the university is looking to limit public access to the property in order to protect what it sees as a valuable and fast-dwindling educational and research resource. Anyone wishing to come onto the property will first have to obtain a permit—good for four months—and then agree to follow certain rules. No vehicles, mountain bikes or horses will be allowed. No fires, no overnight camping, no dogs.
And, based on a decision in December by the state Department of Fish & Game, there will be no fishing. Hunting is allowed, however, and in fact is a condition placed upon the foundation by the Wildlife Conservation Board.
But hunting will be severely limited, says attorney Jeff Carter, who represents the foundation: only three hunters at a time and then only on weekends, alternating Fridays and Saturdays with every other Saturday and Sunday. In fact, Carter says, it could be worse.
“There was a private party in the Bay Area that was looking to buy the Henning Ranch and use it as a private hunting club,” Carter said. “We got it just in time.”
As mentioned, not everyone is happy with the reserve or the manner in which the university plans to manage it.
One retired university employee who understands the workings of the foundation questioned the purity of motive behind the school’s involvement.
“Anytime the university takes on something like this, it’s because of the money,” the source said. “That is their only interest because they are a corporation. Still, they think they are doing the right thing. And, you know, there are lots of people who truly believe what they are doing is for the good of everybody.”
Chico City Councilmember and candidate for state Assembly Rick Keene says he thinks the permit process is “designed to keep people like you and me from going up there. What, I’m so irresponsible that they need to keep tabs on me?”
Keene, a conservative, sees a trend overtaking the environmental movement in which great tracts of land are being put off limits to the public. He points to efforts along the Sacramento River to restore and preserve miles of the river’s riparian habitat at the cost of losing agricultural land and maybe even some flood protection.
Fellow Councilmember Steve Bertagna, another conservative with political ambitions—he’s running for Butte County supervisor—shares Keene’s apprehensions about the university’s management style.
“It has been clear from the onset that certain individuals involved in the project have had an agenda,” Bertagna said. “I think the university had lots of promises at the onset but very little follow-up. Now it seems like they are almost encouraging trespassing.
“I’ve seen plenty of public land become an encampment for other motives,” the councilmember continued. “It goes part and parcel with Prop. 12, one of the biggest scams ever to blow through Chico. There is an arrogant attitude that permeates through these otherwise good intentions of the individuals involved.”
The university is keenly aware of the damage its public image could—and in fact has—suffered since it became involved in the reserve. To that end, the university has reportedly “wined and dined” Ken Grossman, owner of Sierra Nevada Brewery and a major landowner neighbor of the reserve. And it has created the two advisory committees, one technical, the other comprised of citizens at large, to help hammer out the management plan.
Local attorney Denny Latimer is a member of the citizens’ committee. He is enthusiastic about the reserve but also concerned about the public-access issue. And he says he can’t help but wonder how much impact the citizens’ advisory committee will even have in the end.
Longtime environmentalist John Merz says he was asked by McNall to be on the technical advisory committee but didn’t have the time.
“I asked if I would be reimbursed, but they never got back to me,” he said. “I think the overall goal is fine. The real question is, what is the interface here between the university and the public? I think the university has been less than forthcoming.
“The Research Foundation is the front for the action, and the foundation is a private non-profit, which means their doors are not as open as they would be if another entity of the university were involved. The foundation has this sort of corporate shield.”
Merz complains that there has been very limited public participation in the planning.
“The only thing there’s been is the citizens’ advisory [group], and that was put together by the university,” he said. “There were no public meetings, and at the one meeting they had with the [citizens'] advisory committee, some of us showed up, but Scott McNall, who is also the chair of the Research Foundation, made it clear right off that the discussion was only to include those on the committee. It was not exactly open to public input, compared to say a City Council meeting or a Board of Supervisors meeting.”
Suzanne Gibbs, whose efforts pretty much launched the project, is now in the process of pulling up stakes and moving to Medford, Ore. She said she felt somewhat betrayed by the university, which she said has no management policy, and the process conducted to establish some sort of management plan.
“I was working with Don Holtgrieve at the time, and we had a good relationship,” she recalled. “He said let’s go talk with the provost [McNall], and it snowballed after that. But when I started asking about policy, and hunting issues, I started getting cut out of the picture.”
Gibbs said she thinks McNall has his eye on gaining a presidency at another university and is perhaps using the creation and management of the reserve to pad his résumé.
“That, I think, is the motivation here, rather than habitat protection,” she said. “Money wags the policy dog or, in this case, the lack of policy.”
Gibbs is very bothered by the fact that hunting will be allowed.
“We got into it for habitat protection,” she says. “And what a great outdoor habitat laboratory this provides. But what if policy changes and more people want to hunt? Can’t have a mix. Even if no one got shot, the hunters will still scare away the wildlife.
“And then the thought of little kids up there studying nature and here comes a hunter with Bambi’s mother strapped across his back. Yeah, I’m a little broken hearted. I wanted it reserved for wildlife and research. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine hunting on a preserve.”
Further criticism points to the fact the university has not asked for any involvement from the city of Chico.
“The council did ask to be allowed to participate in the advisory committee,” said City Manager Tom Lando. “We got a letter back from Ken Derucher very politely telling us the committee was already formed. I am drafting a letter for the mayor asking for more clarification.” Derucher, who is dean of the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology, is second in command of the project behind McNall.
Lando pointed out that, as the owner of Bidwell Park, the city is a neighbor to the reserve. “I think they are creating more problems [by prohibiting public access] than there are,” he said. “How many people are going to drive 10 miles out of town to get there?”
Even David Guzzetti, the former councilmember well known for his environmentalism, questions where the university is headed. “It’s a case where these university bureaucrats get to control access,” he said. “A lot of progressives push to get it to this point, and then they can’t access the property.”
On the other hand, Barbara Vlamis, general manager of the Butte Environmental Council, applauds the university and its approach to the reserve thus far. “We support restricted access,” she said. “The city is doing the same thing with a sensitive habitat.”
She is referring to the 600-acre property next to the entrance of Upper Park that was slated to become subdivided into the Bidwell Ranch housing project. When it became apparent opponents would stop the project, it was purchased by the city, which does not allow unrestricted access, even though the land was appropriated with public funds.
Vlamis shares Lederer’s and Holtgrieve’s fear that the reserve could be damaged by unrestricted access. “Just look at the tons of garbage we have to pull out of Bidwell Park every year during our cleanups,” she said.
Perhaps the strongest criticism of the university and its intentions comes from local dentist, self-appointed public-lands protector and trail builder Michael Jones, who first made a name for himself when he and wife Caryn dedicated themselves to making sure the city abolished all private encroachments onto Lindo Channel.
The Joneses’ dogged determination to free public land from private clutches won them few friends. Michael Jones’ fight with the university to cut a trail across the reserve in honor of Chico matriarch Annie Bidwell has met the same results.
Jones dreams of ultimately forging a nature trail from the Sacramento River east to the Pacific Rim Trail, which runs the length of the Sierra Nevada. But he also knows this may never be accomplished because of the private properties that lie in the way.
“There is a road the length of the property close to the creek, which would make a very nice Annie Bidwell Trail,” he says. “Roads are a fairly significant scar on the landscape, and I would rather see the road returned to nature. A trail built specifically for foot use would be lower impact and more esthetically pleasing to the students of natural history, fishermen and hunters whom this property was purchased for.”
Jones and his wife attended Wildlife Conservation Board hearings in Sacramento when it was deciding how to proceed with its support for the reserve. The WCB nixed their idea that a foot trail be built down from the ridge to the creek in the Henning Ranch area, so that hikers could make a loop trip, saying that local Department of Fish and Game reps would be handling these types of decisions, in concert with the CSUC Research Foundation.
Mark Stemen is a professor at Chico State, where he is director of environmental studies and also a member of the reserve’s technical advisory board. As would be expected, he disagrees with Jones and favors restricted access to the reserve.
“Some people in this town practice environmental politics the same way the Forest Service does a prescribed burn—just toss a match and see what happens,” Stemen said. “There was no public access until Dan Drake decided to sell.”
But, being a professor, Stemen is philosophical about the buzz created by the reserve thus far.
“I think the current debate over access has been the first educational benefit to come from the reserve purchase,” he said. “A broad cross-section of citizens in Chico are discussing whether humans are to dominate everything, everywhere, or if there are to be places on the earth set aside for other species where humans are only an occasional visitor.
“And since this question is at the heart of many environmental disputes, I think there has been great educational value in wrestling with it so publicly."