Placer County is known for a lot of things - environmental stewardship doesn't top the list.
Last week, with a hardy contingent of Columbia Sportswear-outfitted supporters on hand, Placer County officials took a step toward changing that by opening a 1,000-acre expansion of Hidden Falls Regional Park near Auburn.
Phase three of the vision is to connect the park to additional county open space seven miles away along the Bear River.
The park - northwest of Auburn - opened in 2006 with 201 acres. The expanded park boasts 1,200 acres with 23 miles of new trails.
Officials say they have no usage data but cite the need to expand the parking lot as evidence of the park's popularity.
The park offers hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. The natural pools along the tributaries have been a hit among the young and old.
From the parking lot at 7587 Mears Place, the park offers a variety of experiences: a short disabled-accessible trail, a gravel road perfect for biking and thin foot trails through the meandering oak-dotted terrain.
Touting the park's recreation, wildlife protection and air-quality benefits, the county has been cobbling together the $5.2 million for the expansion over the past several years. The funding sources included state grants, county developer fees and general fund money.
"It was really a matter of pulling the money together rather than trying to follow a schedule," said Jim Durfee, a county administrator.
Funding the expansion - which includes several bridges and observation decks - did generate some push-back from Auburn Area Recreation and Park District officials. They argued that local developer mitigation fees should be used for projects in the area they were collected from, not pooled for countywide amenities.
"It's a beautiful park, I just disagree with how it was funded," said Scott Holbrook, a park district board member.
Last week's ceremony was without acrimony. It was especially poignant for Supervisor Robert Weygandt.
"I used to come up here as a kid," said the supervisor, clad in a pair of well-worn leather boots. "We used to hike over here and fish."
Weygandt said his experience as an early teen, exploring the rolling hills and fishing holes of then-private property, was an important time in his life. He said all boys and girls, whether from the city or the country, should have similar opportunities.
As one might expect, Weygandt has been a leading voice behind the acquisition and development of the park.
Beyond his thirst to share his boyhood stomping grounds, he said it is important for the county to balance preservation with the phenomenal growth it experienced over the past decade.
Weygandt, a Republican, has on occasion come under attack by more conservative voices in his party, but he said the majority of Placer County Republicans don't mind spending a little more to protect the environment while still cultivating a healthy business climate.
He said many Placer conservatives moved there to spread out and enjoy the natural environment.
The land that makes up the park expansion actually was the first parcel acquired by the county. But the 201 acres that made up the first phase were needed to have access to a county road, Durfee said.
The need for bridges that could withstand the weight of firetrucks escalated the cost of opening phase two of the park, he said.
The park currently closes at dark but could eventually host overnight camping, Durfee said.
Plans to connect Hidden Falls by trail to additional open space protected by the Placer Land Trust called Harvego Bear River Preserve - formerly known as Bruin Ranch - took a big step forward in late April when the county reached agreements with three private property owners to allow trail access. The $290,600 deal gives the county 17.5 acres outright, conservation easements over another 5.4 acres and trail easement crossing the corner of one property.
The nonprofit Placer Land Trust has initiated a campaign to raise $750,000 to build the trails connecting the properties.
Weygandt said the perception that the county isn't big on protecting the environment is not true. "We're trying to change that impression," he said.
Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @newsfletch.