The Golf War

Disc golf enthusiasts face off against environmentalists in Upper Park scuffle

THIS AIN’T NO DISCO Randy Abbott, above, a member of Friends of Bidwell Park, explains the damage he sees inflicted upon Upper Bidwell Park by the legions of disc golfers who come to Chico’s unofficial course to play their game.

THIS AIN’T NO DISCO Randy Abbott, above, a member of Friends of Bidwell Park, explains the damage he sees inflicted upon Upper Bidwell Park by the legions of disc golfers who come to Chico’s unofficial course to play their game.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

There is a turf war raging in Chico, a battle that includes all the established hallmarks of human conflict: cultural, philosophical and territorial.

And, of course, each side has a Web site.

The fight is over disc golf, a game whose roots most likely go back to the gentle, non-competitive Frisbee-throwing sport of the early 1970s. But in this case the sides are so determined, so entrenched in their views that it may take Camp David-like accords to establish a lasting peace. Jimmy Carter, where are you when we need you?

The battle at hand is specifically over the existence of a bootlegged disc golf course in far Upper Bidwell Park, about four miles east of the city, on the north side of Highway 32.

Disc golf enthusiasts say it is an increasingly popular game that offers an inexpensive alternative to traditional stick golf and in fact has flourished in the poor economy of recent years. Plus, they say, the game is family oriented (though a vast majority of players are young men) and that disc golf is here to stay.

The idea of the game is simple. Players start at a designated spot, or tee, and then try to hit a series of goals, or pins, with a plastic Frisbee-like disc. As in stick golf, the person who completes the course with the fewest throws wins. (In unofficial play, like that practiced here, dogs are allowed on the course. If the dog picks up the disc and carries it astray, the player must play from wherever the dog finally drops the disc.)

Preservationists say escalating numbers of people throwing hard plastic discs that slice into trees and shrubs is an inappropriate use of the park because it is environmentally harmful. The trailblazing hordes of disc golf players, they say, then trample through ground cover and compact the soil in order to get to where their flying discs have landed.

Golfers say any environmental impact is made worse because the city won’t allow them to mitigate the damage their game may create. The city says it can’t allow such activity because, in a perfect Catch-22, the preservationists have hired an attorney who wrote a letter last February pointing out that the city has no management plan in place that would allow such mitigations.

Up until that letter arrived the city had pretty much supported the golfers. In 1999 the Park Department gave its collective thumbs-up for disc golf and the temporary use of the course, pending approval of a design and final location.

The City Council even appropriated $200,000 to the cause. The city conducted an initial study of the course’s impact on the park land and then issued a mitigated negative declaration, which basically suggested the environment was not being significantly impacted by the activities of the disc golfers.

It looked like disc golf was about to become recognized as a condoned activity in Bidwell Park. But the letter from attorney J. William Yeates of Fair Oaks dated Feb. 27, 2003, halted the process with all the suddenness of a flying disc slamming into the trunk of a blue oak.

Yeates, who was hired by Josephine Guardino, a member of Friends of Bidwell Park, disputed the legality of the city’s findings, calling both the study and the negative declaration “procedurally and factually defective.” The disc golf course, Yeates said, is inconsistent with the city’s General Plan, the property’s zoning (natural resource conservation area) and the park’s master management plan.

The city didn’t acquire the property until 1994, when the Bureau of Land Management sold it. A year later the city purchased an adjoining 1,377 acres, and, after costly legal proceedings, added the additional land to the park.

The park’s master management plan, however, has not been amended since 1990, and thus the new acreage, including the disc golf course, is not covered. Just recently a citizens committee was appointed to help create the amended plan. The committee’s first meeting, by coincidence, was scheduled for the day this story was to be published.

The Park Department, stung by the letter, redirected $150,000 of the money for the disc golf course toward amending the park’s master management plan, angering the disc golfers.

Those golfers say out that their earnest efforts to relocate the course to another part of the park, including an area in Lower Park just east of the Highway 99 overpass, have met with opposition from other park users, like equestrians who fear spinning discs might spook their steeds, as well as some of the park’s residential neighbors, who don’t want legions of disc golfers gallivanting through the park, at least not in their neck of the woods.

The city has said that, while mitigation efforts are off limits, the disc golfers may continue to play a game that is now attracting hundreds of players to the oak-studded bluff overlooking Chico Creek Canyon, even though the trees, ground vegetation, bushes and other plants may be suffering.

GONNA STAND THEIR GROUND Lon Glazner, left, and Gregg Payne are determined to keep disc golf alive in Chico. The men say they’d like to explore ways to minimize the damage the sport does to the environment, but the city will not allow them to do so.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“The area was eroding well before the letter,” said Randy Abbott, a former disc golfer who’s now a member of Friends of Bidwell Park and, like the group itself, opposed to the disc course as it now stands.

“I have sympathy for the golfers,” he said recently on a visit to the course. “It’s just not a good thing for the park.”

Abbott said he’d played hundreds of games of disc golf on the course and used to come up an average of three days a week. He quit about two years ago.

“I thought, ‘This is wrong,’ once I saw trees getting damaged,” he said. “Then I was just blown away when the city went pushing this thing through the process of design and environmental review without trying to get a competent handle on it.

“We don’t blame these guys [disc golfers] for trying to get a course, but the tone of their letters to the editor is biased. They are trying to label us. The fact is they are taking something like Bidwell Park and turning it into something it’s not.”

Abbott called the current state of affairs—golf but no mitigation to stop the environmental impacts—a bad situation but added that the city must be careful with how it handles the process.

“Mitigation is based on scientific analysis, and the proposal for the mitigation is a very serious matter,” he said. “I guess the city thought this wasn’t going to be a big deal for the same reason I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. Who knew that a disc golf course would have this kind of an impact on the environment?”

If a war of words is being waged on the local letters-to-the-editor pages, it’s because emotions run high where Chico’s beloved Bidwell Park is concerned.

Abbott’s side of the fight has allies like Mark Kessler, a self-described avid disc golfer who says that for the past four years he’s watched the impact of the game destroy the course’s vegetation and soil and dampen his appetite for playing.

The pro-golf side includes course founder and local artist Gregg Payne, who also considers himself an environmentalist, and local businessman and computer engineer Lon Glazner, co-owner of Solutions3. Both men belong to the Chico Disc Golf Club.

Caught in the middle is Dennis Beardsley, the city’s parks director, who said he believes a solution will be reached this year when the park’s master management plan is finally amended, 15 years after it was last adjusted.

In that 15-year period, the park has changed quite a bit. Besides the new acreage, the local population has increased, adding more demands to the park, and a few new facilities, such as the observatory, have been added.

The issue boils down to whether those amending the park plan can answer the fundamental question that lies at the heart of the matter: What is the purpose of the park? Is it to provide recreation for residents and visitors, or is it to preserve the natural setting in the way it was deeded to the city by Annie Bidwell 100 years ago this July 10?

Among other things, Annie insisted that the city preserve, “as far as is reasonably possible,” the beauty of the park, protect “the waters of Chico Creek, all of the trees, shrubs and vines therein and it shall sacredly guard the same and only remove such thereof as it may find absolutely necessary.”

The revisionary rights of the deed were purchased in the 1940s, so violation of any of her conditions is now moot. Nevertheless, “we still go by the spirit, if not the legality of Annie’s deed,” said Beardsley.

The unsanctioned disc golf course in Upper Park is dubbed, unofficially of course, the Bushwhacker. It’s existed on the bluffs above Big Chico Creek, about four miles east of Chico, since the late 1980s. It was constructed, at least in part, by Payne. What started off as an 18-pin “short course” now includes a second 18-pin long course and another nine alternative pins, for a grand total of 45 spread over about 40 acres of land.

Right now, in the midst of a long string of rainstorms, the course is a sloppy, muddy mess. And it’s hard to determine the health of the trees, at least the deciduous blue oaks that stand in their winter nakedness.

On a blustery, rainy and cold gray afternoon in late December, 41-year-old Mark Kessler gave us a cursory tour of the course. The wind whipped the rain at a slant as we walked over the rocky fields and along the many muddy trails. Even on this day, in this inclement weather, there were a few players fighting the conditions for a round of disc golf.

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE Mark Kessler, above, is both a fan of disc golf and concerned about the sport’s impact on Upper Park, where hundreds of enthusiasts come to play each week in the spring.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Kessler is a friendly, articulate sort with reddish-brown, curly hair. He and his wife own a florist shop called Terra Bella. They’ve lived in Chico for the last two years, having moved here from eastern Idaho. For seven years before that, they commuted between eastern Idaho and Chico. Kessler looks like an outdoor recreationist and said he was a skier while living in Idaho.

As we walked, he played some of the pins and described the course and what had brought the situation to this point in time.

Of the two courses, he explained, the short course, so named because of the distance between tee and pin, gets the most use. On both courses, every pin is a par 3.

“Unless you’ve played the course, you have no idea where to go,” Kessler said. The course is marked, but subtly. Each tee is numbered by a Roman numeral painted on rounded stone.

“They’ve done a fairly good job of using natural features, using rocks and such,” Kessler noted.

There are multiple paths leading out from the tees toward the pins. And on this day the paths are muddy and in some cases lead right through standing pools of water. Trees and manzanita bushes serve as hazards, standing between the tees and the pins. The idea, of course, is to dogleg the disc around the hazard on the way to the pin.

He pointed to some oak trees that are not in a fairway.

“These have not been hit by discs,” he said. “See the fine branches: That’s where the leaves come out. These are OK.”

Then he motioned toward some oaks that do serve as hazards and as such stand in the firing line.

“These trees are in the middle of a fairway,” Kessler said. He threw his disc and it neatly sliced around a tree. “I missed the tree, right? But I hit the trees more than I miss them. They get clobbered.”

He noted the ground cover as we walked to his disc.

“It actually looks pretty good right now because we have these non-native weeds coming up. But you should see it in the summer. It gets pretty barren. And there is no way these trees are going to withstand this over time.”

Kessler doesn’t condemn the disc golfers.

“The story is they went to the city and said, ‘Can we have our golf course here?’ And the city said yes, which according to the Friends of Bidwell Park it was not empowered to say. So then the city said no improvements.

“It was one of those classic things where they wanted to do the right thing, but the city wouldn’t let them. Then, before you know it there are hundreds of people up here and the damage is occurring.”

The nature of the game, he said, calls for walking not on a single path but wherever your disc takes you.

“This whole area gets walked on. It’s hard to limit it to one trail. I think if you multiplied all the trails up here, it would probably be more than all the trails in the rest of the park combined.

“In some ways, you think, ‘Well, so you have a sacrifice zone. It’s a fun game.'”

BOTH SIDES NOW Chico Park Director Dennis Beardsley, below, says he is confident the two sides in the disc golf disagreement can reach a compromise on where and how to build a disc golf course.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

A couple of young guys with a bounding dog appeared on the course.

“You should see it here at about 2 in the afternoon on a sunny Saturday,” Kessler said. “There are hundreds of people playing. It’s kind of addictive. You come up with guys, and there is a fair amount, even though there is not supposed to be, of alcohol. In fact, I’d say nine out of 10 groups have it.”

But more attractive than the beer—you can get that down in Chico—is the natural beauty. The view of Big Chico Creek Canyon from the long course is nothing short of spectacular.

At one point Kessler’s disc landed near some manzanita plants. “You couldn’t get into these manzanitas when we started playing here. They were impenetrable. But now, you know people gotta get their discs, so they reach in and break the branches.

“And these,” he said, pointing to white marks on the red branches, “are all disc scars.”

And there is the problem of debris left behind by some players who are less than concerned about ecology.

“There are as many people who pick up trash as who leave it,” Kessler said. “I’d say that every single round of golf I’ve ever played I’ve come out with beer bottles. There are folks taking care of the course, but there is another half of the folks that aren’t. But I guess that’s how it is everywhere.”

At some spots along the course there are makeshift benches of 2-by-12 planks sitting atop cylinder blocks. We come upon one that is called the “4-20 bench.”

The area in front of the bench is littered with about a dozen flattened cigarette butts and, curiously, a white golf tee.

“I don’t think people know that there are almost as many people here on Saturday as there are down at Lower Park,” Kessler said. “This is one of the biggest uses of the park, and it is just unknown to most people. It is predominantly male, although there are some females up here. And it is a lot of Chico State students and those people who came and then never left.

“The demographic is probably 18 to 40; kind of a beer-drinking, cannabis-using crowd. This carries the same affections that guys have for fishing or hunting—going out with the guys into the woods and doing this thing that is competitive.”

We walked to another pin that is set up along the edge of the canyon. To get to the pin, the player must toss the disc over a crevice that juts along a steep wall of the canyon.

“This is a tough one,” he said, as he let his disc fly.

The pin has proved dangerous—and in one case a few years back even fatal—for players. And just a few weeks ago a player had to be rescued after sliding 70 feet down the cliff while trying to retrieve an off-course disc.

Kessler explained that discs get better as they get worn and players can get pretty attached to them.

“All these trails are created by “Hey, where’s my disc?” people who are searching around looking for where their disc went,” he said, pointing to a web of brown trails along the edge of the cliff.

“This is not even one of the hardest holes,” he said. “But yeah, this is one of the most spectacular disc golf courses in the state, I bet. It’s become very popular.”

The city has to find a way to approve this without setting a precedent for other activities like paintball courses, he said. But for now the city is doing nothing.

TEED-OFF Disc golf players, and a faithful dog, head to pick up their tossed discs on a blustery January day on the bootlegged disc course in Upper Park.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“I know I moved to Chico because of this park,” he said, “and it is just not good management to just say, ‘Well we don’t know what to do with it so we’ll just look the other way and hope it doesn’t cause too many problems.’ “

In the end, Kessler is torn about the game.

“One side of me says let’s work with these guys, and the other side says I would let go of the course if it had to come down to one or the other. The park is too important. But then I also suppose for a lot of these guys this is what the park is to them.”

As we walk off the course and back to our truck, we spot a silver SUV. There is the occasional flash of a lighter flame through tinted windows of the front passenger window. As we approach, two men in their late 40s or early 50s get out and head to the first tee. One guy is wearing a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt. They look like NASCAR dads, possibly from Oroville.

“Blowin’ a gale, huh” one of them says good-naturedly. “Ah, it ain’t that bad. I been up here in a lot worse.”

They ask if we’ve ever played the Oroville course. We say no, and they tell us it’s a good one. Gregg Payne, it turns out, designed that one, too.

Payne, Kessler said, is the “brain child” behind the Upper Park course and one of the best players in the area.

A few days later I visited the course again, this time with Payne and Lon Glazner, the public-relations coordinator for the Chico Disc Golf Club.

Payne and Glazner had only recently met. Besides having the love of disc golf in common, they both own 1960s automobiles—Glazner has a Ford Falcon, Payne a Dodge Dart. It is good, they agree, to have an ally who can rescue you from a lonely highway when your car breaks down.

The men are physical opposites. Payne is tall and lanky, with long red hair. Glazner is short and stocky with a buzz cut.

“There is a lot of disc golf stuff going on,” Glazner allowed, stating the obvious. “It didn’t have to be. It’s the whole history of the process, the letters to the editor.”

He said the latest escalation in the war of words was triggered by a September story in the Enterprise-Record concerning a meeting CDGC had held with the Friends of Bidwell Park.

“We had a meeting to find out what their concerns were,” Glazner said. “For me it was an eye-opener. They were a little bit condescending. We showed them some images of mountain bike impacts, and they told us they wanted to do away with them, too. I don’t know if they meant just the impacts or the mountain biking. It was pretty clear that there wasn’t a lot of common ground.”

In the E-R story, Glazner said, Dennis Beardsley suggested disc golf was damaging trees in Upper Park. The park director, he said, should not have given his opinion as a city staff person, but rather should demand an environmental report before such statements are made.

Glazner said he sent a memo to Beardsley saying the golf club would like to take action to try to minimize any impact the game was having, including moving some of the targets away from trees in the spring.

“It really exploded,” Glazner said. “It was such a minor proposal, such a minimal effort.”

Beardsley had told them not to take any action because, in light of the letter from the attorney, any changes to the course as it now stands could get the city into legal hot water.

Glazner took the issue to the Parks Commission, whose members paid a visit to the course in November, but nothing changed.

SIGN O’ THE TIMES Among its other admonishments and requests this sign on the disc golf course warns that “Deliberate littering is a stroke against your head.”

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“The opposition, even with these minor adjustments to help the situation, was adamant that the disc golfers should not be there and can’t even mitigate. It sounded like they were embarking on a process to prevent us from doing anything that might improve conditions.”

Payne said he would like to add gravel to the tee areas to help stop erosion as well as gravel to define a single trial from tee to pin, to keep the impact on the soil and grasses as narrow as possible.

They said they asked the Friends of Bidwell Park to support their idea of installing such test infrastructures on one or two pins and then leaving them there while the amendments to the master management plan moved forward.

“That way there would be some concrete data as to what kind of improvements the infrastructure that we were recommending would actually have,” Glazner said. “I found out their board voted on it and didn’t want to support us in that effort.

“The city really doesn’t want to support us in any effort to determine either what can be done to improve conditions or even to find out how many people are up there actually using the park.”

The men say that disc golf does not get the same respect as does the popular mountain biking, another controversial park use that has gone on for years.

“They are going to look at disc golf from the standpoint of what would the course look like if disc golf had never been played here versus what it looks like now,” Glazner said. “They are going to address biking issue as if we’ve got 80 miles of illegal mountain biking trials and how do we accommodate mountain bikers so that they are not creating additional spur trails? To me that seems a little bit unfair.”

They say that lack of respect may be rooted in the fact that so few retailers deal in the disc golf business as opposed to the bike trade.

“Disc golf is not supported by a large number of retailers that sell high-end mountain bikes,” Glazner said. “In addition to paying $1,000 to $3,000 for a bike, general upkeep on a bike is $50 or $60 a month. So you have more retailers involved an activity that has been in place longer. I think they realize that they could never remove mountain biking from the park.”

Glazner does not advocate banning mountain bikes from Bidwell Park. He just asks for equal respect for disc golf.

“It’s a massive park, and there has to be room for everybody,” he said. “If you look at the total area the disc golfers use, it’s about 40 acres. The actual land you are walking on is much less than that.

“It’s not a huge impact, but look at the number of people who do it. You can’t take your 4-year-old mountain biking, but you can take him disc golfing.”

Payne suggested that there is almost a conspiracy at work here to eradicate disc golf from the park. “If I was going to make it look as bad as possible up here, I’d do exactly what they are doing: not allowing the players to do any kind of field maintenance, even though we’ve asked. We’ve been continuously reassured that the city is going to step in and manage and control it for years and it never happens.

“The problems just keep getting worse, while the sport gets more popular.”

Dennis Beardsley, the genial park director, said the city was moving toward authorizing disc golf in Upper Park until the Yeates letter arrived.

“There was no way to get around it,” he said. “We had not amended the new acquisition with the master management plan. We couldn’t go any further.”

The disc golfers looked for an alternative site but started running out of options, he added. When they asked to stay temporarily at the current site, the city said OK and looked to make it permanent.

He said he hopes that the final amendments will be done one year from now.

He also said he is not comfortable answering question as to whether the game is harmful to the park.

“I won’t put it specific to disc golf,” he said. “Anytime we use Bidwell Park there are going to be impacts. There have been impacts with other activities in the park. I don’t want to minimize what is going on up there because we are not managing it.”

He said he is confident the issue will be resolved. “I don’t know how, but there has to be an answer at some point. This can’t be allowed to continue. Both sides are suspicious of the each other. They both have their philosophies and their reasons for feeling the way they do.

“I’d much rather be in a community where you have these kinds of debates; it’s far better than the alternative. In the end it comes down to what does the community want for that park?

“It’s going to be around a heck of a lot longer than any of us are."