Teeing off on disc golf
The city is close to deciding whether to build new, better courses on the Upper Park site— but does it have the money?
Chico’s disc-golf site is an unlikely center of controversy. Few people other than disc golfers have been there or seen it. Although it’s in Upper Bidwell Park, it’s inaccessible from the park road and has never been popular with hikers or other park users. As recently as 15 years ago, in fact, it wasn’t even part of the park, but rather was owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and used mainly for cattle grazing.
And yet, when the Chico City Council meets on Wednesday (June 13) to listen to public comments about the new Bidwell Park Master Management Plan and its accompanying environmental-impact report, the disc-golf site is likely to be the most contentious issue up for discussion.
That’s because for the past four years it’s been at the center of a passionate debate about the future of the park.
The site actually sits above Big Chico Creek Canyon, on the ridge above its south side. Two courses have been laid out on 40 acres of flat, stony land just off Highway 32 about 4.5 miles east of Bruce Road. If you park your car beside the road and walk in about 100 yards—farther in some places—you’ll come to the edge of the bluff overlooking Upper Park. Salmon Hole is directly below. The vistas up and down the canyon are stunning.
What makes discussion of the site complicated is that disc golfers in growing numbers have been using it for more than a decade, with the city’s tacit but never official approval. Now, with the completion of the new park plan, the city must decide once and for all whether to develop the site into the kind of disc-golf marvel its creators have long envisioned.
In recent years, however, a number of local environmentalists—and one group in particular—have charged that disc golf does irreversible environmental damage to the area and is an inappropriate use for Upper Park. They want the city to shut down this site and build a better, more environmentally friendly one somewhere in town.
The disc-golfing area is ridgetop land: blue oaks and foothill pines interspersed among open stretches of grasses and wildflowers growing in shallow, rocky soil. Beginning about 15 years ago, local disc golfers began playing on the site and, over time, developed two courses, an 18-hole “short” course for beginners and a 21-hole “long” course for more experienced players. Together they cover about 25 acres.
Until about four years ago, the golfers encountered little opposition to this site. Indeed, their earlier efforts to build a disc-golf course in town had run into resistance and, as a compromise, they had agreed to use this site instead.
In 2003 the City Council allocated $206,000 for an environmental review to figure out how best to mitigate the courses’ impacts and then build an environmentally compatible disc-golf site.
The project had received widespread support, including from the local chapter of the Sierra Club. But in April 2003 a new group, Friends of Bidwell Park, entered the picture, insisting that no new projects could be developed in Upper Park until its master management plan, first developed in 1990, had undergone a long-overdue updating. A founding board member of FOBP, Josephine Guardino, had raised the specter of a lawsuit in February 2003.
In a move that made legal but perhaps not common sense, city officials reacted by putting the site on hold. They told the disc golfers they could continue to use it, but they could do nothing to improve it, maintain it or otherwise mitigate the impacts of their use.
On a recent tour of the site, Susan Mason, president of Friends of Bidwell Park, pointed out some of those impacts. They are readily visible, especially on the more popular of the two courses, the “short” course on the easterly end of the site. There are many “trails"—wide, denuded paths—and the tee and pin areas have expanded and compacted sufficiently to affect the root systems of nearby trees.
Also, some trees show damage from being struck by discs—a fact confirmed by a tree expert’s assessment, included in the park plan’s environmental-impact report, that the health of the oaks located near the tees and pins has been damaged by disc golf.
Unfortunately, Mason said, the disc golfers have shown no interest recently in other sites. “It’s hard to blame them. It’s a beautiful site, and they don’t get hassled here.”
Nevertheless, she added, it’s just not right for disc golf. Upper Park is intended for low-impact use, not something as developed and intensely used as the site has become. Making it official and permanent would set a dangerous precedent.
The disc golfers disagree, of course. They say they have no more impact on the park that mountain bikers and hikers do. Besides, they add, they’re more than willing to maintain the site in a way that keeps it healthy.
Local artist and sign-maker Gregg Payne, who more than anyone has done the hard work of creating the site (he designed it and built the tone poles, among other things), says he is frustrated that he and others have been unable to maintain the site for the past four years.
“We couldn’t even bring in a few wheelbarrows of gravel to protect the tee areas,” he complained.
Approving it wouldn’t set a precedent, he argued, noting that the park plan is explicit in stating that no other projects are anticipated in Upper Park—not even the Annie Bidwell Trail long proposed for the south side of the creek.
With the money remaining from its original allocation for the disc-golf site, the city hired a professional disc-golf course designer, Michael Belchik, to design new courses that would mitigate the problems created by the current courses as well as avoid areas that contain sensitive plant species and minimize soil compaction.
The new courses would have concrete tees, for example, and the pins would be replaced by baskets and located away from sensitive areas. Belchik said his goal was to come up with designs that tested players’ games, offered “playability” and hole diversity, that “flowed” and had an “epic factor"—all while avoiding impinging on sensitive resources.
The designs are described in the master management plan. The plan also includes a new parking lot, complete with toilet facilities, that would serve the golf site and as an access point to trails into the south side of the park. Currently, access is via unimproved wildcat trailheads along Highway 32.
Three alternatives are proposed: two 18-hole courses, one short and one long; two courses, but with a 12-hole short course; and a single long course.
Any of them is fine with Payne. “I wouldn’t mind for a second if they replaced the short course altogether,” he said.
If so, he would like to see a short course somewhere in town, where it would be more accessible to kids. Having such a course would take much of the pressure off the Upper Park site.
Still, the short course is highly popular and important to the sport. As Brendan Vieg, the city planner overseeing the master management plan, noted, “most players other than the real experts find the long course quickly becomes unfun.”
The environmental analysis suggests that the new disc-golf courses proposed in the plan would be an improvement on what is there now and have impacts that could be mitigated through careful monitoring and maintenance.
But who would pay for it all? The city has spent the remainder of its original allocation for the site on the new designs and the park plan, and now it’s operating at a deficit, as City Manager Greg Jones reminded the City Council at its budget meeting Tuesday (June 5). Building a quality disc-golf course isn’t expensive—Payne estimated it at about $1,000 per hole—but putting in a parking lot and restroom could be pricey, and then it all has to be maintained.
One idea—mentioned by Dennis Beardsley, the city’s general services director—is for the disc golfers to form an association and lease the site from the city, just as the golf course, nature center and equestrian sites are leased. Another is for the city and golfers to enter into a partnership arrangement to provide maintenance, since the city will have sole responsibility for the trailhead part of the development.
Either way, the city is going to have to come up with some money if it decides to go ahead with the disc-golf courses and trailhead access at the site. It would be ironic, after all this time and expense, if the City Council decided not to go forward because it had run out of funds.