Growth puts pressure on California's state parks

Published: Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012 - 9:24 pm

The Bee is taking a summer-long look at the state of California's state parks. Read the stories, view the galleries, and check out our new online park directory, including descriptions, maintenance and crime data for all 278 parks. Become part of this project by adding photos from your visits to state parks, sharing your favorite picnic spots and walks and any troubles that cross your path at www.sacbee.com/stateparks.

At the Riverwood Inn in rural Humboldt County, where a Harley-Davidson flag flaps on a light pole beneath the Stars and Stripes, the proprietor is steaming mad.

Some 15 miles south of Loreen Eliason's roadhouse, the California Department of Transportation is planning to widen a twisty stretch of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park, home to one of the world's last old-growth redwood forests. Although Caltrans has assured the public the ancient giants won't be harmed, some residents and activists are alarmed by the very prospect of disturbing the trees' shallow root systems.

"I was born up here. I'm connected to those trees," said Eliason, who has joined a lawsuit to halt the road plan.

"Those uppity-ups in Sacramento. … They absolutely can't say for certain they won't hurt the trees," she said. "I was more than glad to jump into the lawsuit."

As civilization closes in on many of California's 278 state parks, legal and emotional battles are erupting up and down the Golden State. With 1.3 million acres in public hands – much of it the most prized real estate in California – the state's parks increasingly find themselves poked at and even assaulted by outside pressures.

"As California grows, it's growing out to our (park) borders," said Roy Stearns, spokesman for the state Department of Parks and Recreation. "And lots of people see a park as an under-utilized open space instead of something that should be preserved for all time."

California originally envisioned its parks as remote havens of beauty and tranquility, establishing the first in 1902 when the state's population was about 1.5 million. More than a century later – plus another 35 million people – the demands of a growing population and 21st century technology are butting up against these scenic refuges.

Pressing against park borders – and sometimes well into them – are power poles, cell towers, sea walls, casinos, the border fence, housing developments, wineries and road projects. Conflicts have arisen with private landowners, transportation agencies, utility companies, businesses, environmentalists, park users – even outlaws.

Among recent conflicts:

• Last month, a large marijuana farm was discovered inside Sugarloaf Ridge State Park near Kenwood. Officials removed an estimated 4,500 marijuana plants from a remote area of the park, known for its hiking and horseback riding trails and pristine campground.

• A lawsuit filed by the state parks department accuses a Woodside couple of destroying an American Indian petroglyph and causing other damage by planting a wine garden on their private island in Clear Lake, flanked by two state parks. Though the couple bought the island in 2002, the state contends it owned a conservation easement on the island that was decimated by the landscaping.

• A project begins in September to restore a portion of China Camp State Park damaged by an illegal trail. A mountain biker pleaded guilty in 2008 to secretly building the trail on park land at the end of a suburban San Rafael street.

• At the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve near Lancaster, controversy persists over a proposal to build an auto racing track less than a mile away that critics say threatens to add a new feature to the oasis: noise.

A legacy of conflict

Clashing visions of California state parks are nothing new. Almost since the parks' inception, public disputes have arisen over ambitious road projects, grazing plans and development proposals that some have blasted as "overdevelopment."

In recent years, legislative efforts to control development in and around state parks have met with defeat – including two bills vetoed last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bills, by Democratic Sens. Christine Kehoe of San Diego and Lois Wolk of Davis, would have tightened requirements for altering state parks and would have given the Legislature new authority over such plans.

Kehoe said she was prompted to push back after three state parks in her San Diego district found themselves at "ground zero" for controversial infrastructure proposals.

At Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, for instance, San Diego Gas & Electric had planned to route a 150-mile, high-voltage transmission line through the state's largest park.

Some 70 miles away along the coast, a toll road agency was planning to build a six-lane tollway through popular San Onofre State Beach.

And at Border Field State Park on the Mexican border, the Bush administration announced plans to erect a secondary border fence that would eliminate public access to a plaza known as "Friendship Park."

"When we decide to put a power line or border fence or freeway through our state parks just because they're already in public hands, we are overturning all those years of investment," Kehoe said.

Ultimately, only the border fence project went through as planned, and Friendship Park overlooking the Pacific Ocean is closed. The path for the Sunrise Powerlink was rerouted away from Anza-Borrego, and the San Onofre toll road proposal was rejected by state and federal agencies.

A similar drama involving parks vs. public infrastructure is unfolding in the northernmost reaches of California.

In June, a coalition of conservation groups and individuals filed a lawsuit in San Francisco challenging Caltrans' plan to widen and realign a 1.1-mile stretch of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park.

Caltrans maintains that the road widening is "critical to the commerce of the region" because it will allow longer trucks to travel the route. The winding stretch of two-lane road with tight curves is one of the last areas in California where these longer trucks are restricted, the agency states.

Caltrans has said it will not remove any old-growth trees, some of which tower over the narrow roadway. The plan calls for removal of 54 trees, only two of which are redwoods, with diameters of 6 inches and 7 inches, according to a Caltrans fact sheet.

Kerul Dyer of the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center, which joined the coalition suing to stop the roadwork, said the plan puts old-growth trees and endangered species at "unacceptable risk." The lawsuit contends that Caltrans violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to adequately address the project's potential impact – including cutting and paving over the shallow network of tree roots that binds Richardson Grove.

Loreen Eliason, a fourth-generation Humboldt County resident, said she was eager to join the lawsuit. Eliason's Riverwood Inn, a watering hole that has hosted the likes of Maria Muldaur and Ray Condo and His Ricochets, sits near the entrance of the "Avenue of the Giants," the world-famous 31-mile stretch of towering redwoods. Richardson Grove is to the south.

While some local residents view the highway project as an economic opportunity, she fears just the opposite.

"The trees – that's why people are coming here. That's my cash cow," said Eliason, who bought the roadhouse in 1995. "There's no way they can say this will not harm those trees."

The state pushes back

Other locals who cherish the old grove see a compelling reason to proceed.

On a warm summer afternoon, with traffic zipping by the visitors center, Scott Carmichael of nearby Redway stood under a canopy of lush green with his 89-year-old father and 27-year-old son. A retired California Highway Patrol officer, Carmichael once patrolled this treacherous stretch of Highway 101, responding to horrific crashes.

"I've talked to Caltrans, and I know they're going to make it safer for people in the park and people on the highway," said Carmichael, who began visiting Richardson Grove as a young boy.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation has not formally opposed the Richardson Grove highway plan. The state, however, has vigorously fought proposals it viewed as illegal encroachments.

In Lake County, for instance, which has two state parks renowned for rich American Indian resources, a lawsuit drags on over a couple's landscaping project.

In 2006, the state parks department filed suit against William and Lee Ann Gilbert, alleging that the couple wreaked havoc in a state-owned conservation easement on their private island.

According to court documents, the Gilberts bought 10-acre Indian Island in Clear Lake in 2002, which included a 1.5-acre easement owned by the state parks department since 1982.

The state contends the Gilberts ripped up the easement to plant grapevines, clearing natural vegetation and "destroying" a piece of American Indian rock art.

"We've got to let people know this is not OK," said Marilyn Linkem, supervisor of the parks department's Northern Buttes District.

The couple's attorney argues that the state's survey of the property is rife with "inconsistencies and inaccuracies."

"I don't think anyone believes this was deliberate or intentional," said Redwood City attorney Dek Ketchum, adding that the case will likely settle soon.

Some threats on state parks have led to criminal court.

On the San Francisco Bay shore, popular China Camp State Park is plagued by illegal trails.

The Marin County park includes fragrant hills of oak and madrone, and a scenic shoreline with some of the bay's last remaining salt marshes.

Bree Hardcastle, an environmental scientist at the park, said the illegal trails threaten fragile habitat and endangered species, including the salt marsh harvest mouse and two birds, the clapper rail and the black rail.

Despite a major emphasis on controlling the problem, the illegal trail work continues.

"I don't feel like we can keep up," Hardcastle said.

A delicate balance

On a recent overcast morning, Hardcastle stood before a trail cutting through salt marsh between Turtle Back Hill and Jake's Island at the park. The illegal trail was well-worn, providing scofflaw visitors a path through the marsh at low tide. Hikers repeatedly have taken down the split-rail fencing erected to steer people away from the muddy track, and removed signs telling them to keep out. Some have even used the fencing and interpretive signs to scrape mud off their shoes after using the illegal trail.

A more extreme case can be found on the park's southern border, where the suburban Glenwood neighborhood of San Rafael abuts park boundaries.

At the end of Robinhood Drive, a mountain biker spent untold hours building an illegal trail – more than a mile long – through a section of habitat that was closed to the public. The construction involved steel rebar, retaining walls, tree removal and digging out sections of hillside up to 2 feet deep to create a level path.

The 57-year-old culprit, Michael Philip More, was caught in the act in 2008 after a tip from neighbors. He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and paid fines that will cover the cost of a restoration project that begins next month, Hardcastle said.

Joanne Danielson, sector superintendent for the state parks department, said her agency walks a delicate balance between protecting California resources and providing public access. Recreation is essential in parks, she said, but some of the land must be set aside as habitat, and to protect water quality and scenery.

"There's a yin and yang between providing recreation and high-quality habitat," said Danielson. "We hope we aren't going to develop the whole park for recreation. These resources are being saved for these visitors, their children and grandchildren."

In neighboring Sonoma County, law enforcement officials have yet to identify the suspects who carved out a marijuana farm inside the boundaries of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park near Kenwood.

On July 20, a sheriff's helicopter patrol spotted the illegal operation in a remote area of the park. Officials later removed about 4,500 marijuana plants in several different plots covering 5 acres. In addition to the marijuana, officers recovered a weapon, said Dave Matthews, a park ranger and public safety coordinator for the state parks department's Diablo Vista District.

Two years ago, an even larger growing operation was discovered in the park.

The operations deal a blow to the park's habitat, as growers clear areas for the crop and often apply heavy doses of fertilizer and pesticides.

At Sugarloaf Ridge, work is now beginning to clean up the latest grow. Law enforcement officials reported finding thousands of feet of irrigation tubing to divert water from a stream. A kitchen and latrine had been set up, as well as several garbage dumping areas.

"That's one of the main problems with these gardens," said Matthews. "There's resource damage caused not only by the growing of dope itself, but all the ancillary activities."

More trouble ahead

The impact of so-called ancillary activities is fueling a new controversy in Southern California, where a motorsports park has been proposed a mile from the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve.

Fairmont Butte Motorsports Park would include 3.6 miles of racetrack along Highway 138 just three-fourths of a mile north of the poppy reserve. The developer, Malloy Family Partners of Corona, also proposes overnight accommodations in 26 "garage lounges," two large vehicle maintenance garages, 10 acres of paved parking, a helicopter landing pad, and a restaurant, bar and clubhouse.

An environmental impact report concluded the facility will not significantly increase noise in the park. But critics claim the analysis was flawed and fear the silence and solitude of the preserve will be shattered.

Kathy Weatherman, district superintendent for state parks, wrote to Los Angeles County planners urging them to impose a three-month "quiet period" on the racetrack, if approved, from March through May. This is the primary period of the annual poppy bloom, when the park is busiest.

The county and developer, instead, propose a one-month quiet period.

"I never thought, when I heard someone wanted to build a racetrack so close to the Poppy Reserve, that it would have a chance. And I'm astounded that it does," said Margaret Rhyne, president of the Poppy Reserve/Mojave Desert Interpretive Association, a volunteer group that assists the park.

In the decades ahead, tensions between California parks and other priorities – transportation, green energy, private development – are likely to intensify. Over the next 40 years, the state's population is expected to grow from about 39 million to more than 59 million, according to the Department of Finance.

Parks spokesman Stearns said the department has identified high-speed rail as the No. 1 potential game-changer for parks up and down the state in coming years.

That quandary already is playing out at Los Angeles State Historic Park, where a high-speed rail project proposes to tunnel under the downtown park – possibly closing it for years. Supporters of Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park also are gearing up to fight plans to run the state's long-planned high-speed rail line near the park. Some blueprints for the ambitious rail project also would have the line cut through San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area and Pacheco State Park, both in Merced County.

"For every project that gets defeated, there's another one coming up behind it," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation.

"Because fundamentally, California has very bad laws to protect its state parks."

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