Trail blazers

Chico guild adds momentum to a statewide push for connecting bike paths

Chico Velo’s Janine Rood, left, and Samantha Becker, center, flank the “desire line” that bicyclists and pedestrians have worn into a grassy patch separating two paved paths by Little Chico Creek. Both support the expansive trail network championed by Ken Donnell with the California Guild.

Chico Velo’s Janine Rood, left, and Samantha Becker, center, flank the “desire line” that bicyclists and pedestrians have worn into a grassy patch separating two paved paths by Little Chico Creek. Both support the expansive trail network championed by Ken Donnell with the California Guild.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Conference details:
The California Trails Master Plans Project’s initial regional conference will be Saturday (May 20), 10 a.m.-4 p.m., at the Chico Guild Hall, 2775 Nord Ave. Call 566-2561 or email for information; visit to register.

Ken Donnell has a vision. In his mind’s eye, in the not-so-distant future, he sees cyclists and hikers traveling across California, side by side, traversing a network of interconnected trails both wide enough and defined enough to facilitate fluid transit.

Picture an interstate highway system, but for nonmotorized conveyance.

Sound far-fetched? Donnell doesn’t think so—nor do his associates in the California Guild, a community service organization with 7,000 members across 125 chapters, including Chico’s 45-person group.

The guild champions the California Trails Master Plan Project. As the title suggests, this effort would map and link up trails statewide. Invariably this would involve land purchases and legal matters such as rights-of-way over county lines; thus, the group is lobbying the Legislature, which the guild can do as a 501(c)(8) “fraternal societies” nonprofit.

The guild also is collecting partners for support and problem-solving. A number will gather Saturday (May 20) in Chico for the first in a series of regional conferences to plan how to proceed. (See infobox for details.) The second conference is scheduled for Sept. 22 in Oakland.

“We’re really happy to have Chico be the birthplace of this, because Chico is just such a good place for alternative transportation, nonmotorized transportation, active transportation—whatever label is being put on that,” Donnell said. “It’s such a great place to walk, to hike, to ride bicycles. It’s got a really active progressive community, and to have our local chapter host the first conference, I think it’s amazing.”

Donnell has had a longstanding interest in trails. Before retiring to the Plumas County town of Greenville in 2000, he advocated for the bike path behind Little Chico Creek Elementary School, which runs by property he owned. He also became enamored of the possibilities presented by levees spanning vast stretches of Sacramento Valley flood plains.

The California State Grange, from which the California Guild broke off, started work on a levee trails plan. In 2007, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 669 to develop “a continuous recreation corridor around the delta, including bicycle and hiking trails”—but then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.

In the decade since, however, Donnell said there’s been “just a lot of forward movement on developing nonmotorized trails all across the state and within the levee flood-plain system.” He learned last year that the state’s Department of Water Resources was conducting baseline studies to lay groundwork for such trailways—“so in that 10 years, there was [a] 180-degree turnaround…. I attribute that to so much more forward thinking and a lot of people planting good seeds.”

Suellen Rowlison is equally encouraged. A retired public health nurse and Chico Community Guild board member until last year, she remains co-coordinator of the Chico Trails Master Plan Project (Donnell calls her his “co-co”). She rides her bike through Bidwell Park, and “earlier in life” she backpacked, but her efforts are for the greater good.

“I see the value in trails on a larger scale, so we can promote people getting outdoors and exercising, enjoying nature and the environment,” she said. “When you’re riding and hiking the trails of California, there’s a sense of freedom.”

Rowlison sees other benefits, such as agritourism: economic activity generated by visitors to agricultural areas. Many lush hotspots sit off the beat and track—accessible by rural roads and, yes, trails.

The California Guild has drafted a joint resolution for the Legislature to adopt, recommending creation of a master plan. As the organization’s legislative analyst, Diana Rude, seeks support, Donnell hopes North State Sen. Jim Nielsen will sponsor the legislation. (Nielsen’s capitol office did not answer the CN&R’s request for an update.)

Despite its benefits, the project has challenges to overcome beyond the jurisdictional and financial hurdles a plan must clear.

One such issue concerns what Donnell calls “disparity of speed.” As he explained, when one mode of transportation goes faster than another traveling next to it, the risk of an accidental collision becomes more severe. Bicycles travel 20-30 mph; hikers may walk a quarter to a third that pace.

“There’s a conflict there,” he said. “How we’re going to address that, we don’t have those answers yet. But the first thing we’ve got to do is ask those questions—and ask them among enough people who can start to get answers.”

That’s the purpose of the regional conferences. Saturday’s Chico gathering has attracted speakers such as Laura Cohen from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and participation from groups such as the Chico Velo Cycling Club.

“While being a lofty goal, I think it’s a fantastic goal,” Samantha Becker, Chico Velo’s advocacy manager, said of the trails plan project. “I think it would open up so many more ways to get from Point A to Point B for so many more people.”

Janine Rood, executive director of Chico Velo, said she knows such a plan can work because extensive trails already exist. She cited Adventure Cycling’s 45,000 miles of routes, including the Pacific Coast bike trail consisting of signed roads from Canada to Mexico.

“I can visualize some ways that it could be, and that it’s possible,” Rood said. “But I’m sure that I can’t imagine right now what it might possibly turn into: bigger than what we could imagine, if it really takes off.”