In what could mark a turnaround for a troubled section of the American River Parkway, a nonprofit group is poised to take over a former Boy Scout camp across the river from downtown with plans to transform it into a major recreation spot.
The Sacramento Valley Conservancy is expected to get the state's go-ahead this month to begin what could be a half-million-dollar upgrade of Camp Pollock, a rustic campground established by the Boy Scouts in 1923.
The State Lands Commission agreed Wednesday to buy the property from the Scouts. It will lease the land to the conservancy, which plans to open it to the public as a nature and recreation center.
Conservancy Executive Director Aimee Rutledge said her group hopes to have the site open for public visits soon after it takes control in January. "This is the first step in a long-term project we are really looking forward to," she said.
The 11-acre property, nestled among cottonwoods and willows just west of Highway 160, is relatively small. But the effect of Wednesday's state agreement is potentially large.
Camp Pollock sits near a forbidding section of the 23-mile-long parkway. Known as an illegal camping area for several hundred homeless people, the area has gained a reputation among some parkway users as a place to avoid.
Sacramento County officials, including Supervisor Phil Serna, say they hope the conservancy can kick-start a recreation renaissance in the lower parkway, and, as a side benefit, help their efforts to discourage homeless camping.
"We're excited," said Jeff Leatherman, head of county parks, which owns and manages most of the parkway. "It's about (making) the lower parkway a destination."
American River Parkway Foundation head Dianna Poggetto lauded the plans, but warned that the homeless will just move to different areas in the parkway. "That is the sad reality," she said.
One conservancy board member, North Sacramento businessman Bob Slobe, has been vocal about the need to eliminate homeless camping in the area, but Rutledge, the conservancy's director, said her group is not focused on that issue.
"Our goals aren't to manage illegal camping," she said. "Our goals are to enhance the site for recreation and have youth be able to enjoy and understand the parkway better."
The deal is a high-profile step for the 22-year-old Sacramento Valley Conservancy, which has facilitated dozens of land purchases for conservation, and manages a number of those properties. These include a massive spread in eastern Sacramento County, Deer Creek Hills Preserve, which hosts 1,000 city youths annually on nature outings.
Rutledge envisions Camp Pollock as a central gathering place for school groups, picnickers, hikers, cyclists and kayakers. She said the conservancy hopes to transform the camp's old lodge with its sprawling porch, wood-beamed grand hall and two-story stone fireplace into an event center. It also intends to replant native species and build trails.
"You are right here in the middle of the city, (but) you could be anywhere," Rutledge said. "You really feel like you get away. It's this incredible connection to the environment we live in.
"That experience for kids would just be amazing. A lot of kids we work with may have never touched the river, never put their toe in."
Rutledge said the conservancy will get $150,000 from the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency to kick-start work, and has launched a fundraising drive to raise the $300,000 to $500,000 for the bulk of the rehab work.
Rutledge said the conservancy also is negotiating to buy a 123-acre piece of land just to the west, called the Urrutia property, one of the last private holdings in the parkway. That site has a large pond, left over from mining, where children could learn boating. The larger property would offer room for more extensive interpretive trails.
A more immediate goal is to make sure that Camp Pollock is safe for the visitors that the conservancy hopes to attract. Rutledge said she has been talking with county officials about strategies for patrolling the area. "We feel we need to represent to people that this area is safe. That is important."
Rutledge said the conservancy plans to have a full-time caretaker on site whose job will include discouraging homeless people from sleeping there.
The complicated land deal, involving the state, the county, the local flood control agency and a nonprofit, is typical of the creative transactions being used to amass new public land in an era of austere government budgets.
Sacramento County owns and manages most of the American River Parkway between Hazel Avenue and the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers at Discovery Park.
But when Boy Scout officials at the Golden Empire Council let it be known this year that they wanted to sell the site because it had become too costly to maintain, the county didn't have the money to buy it.
Instead, the state Lands Commission agreed Wednesday to purchase the camp for $300,000. The conservancy will sign a 25-year management lease to operate it, and has drawn up a general management and use plan, following county parkway plan guidelines.
Sitting on the Camp Pollock lodge's expansive porch last week, sheltered from a rainstorm, Rutledge described the possibilities: Cyclists dropping in from the bike trail to snack on the porch. School groups trekking to the water's edge to see egrets fly and fish jump. Groups hiking the interpretive trails. State workers on lunchtime picnics.
"It just needs some loving care," she said.