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Editorial: Is parkway beloved, or a 'burden'?

If you are a cyclist, runner, dog walker, bird watcher, picnicker or kayaker who lives within proximity of the American River, there is an easy answer to the question: What is the best thing about living in Sacramento County?

For many outdoor enthusiasts, the American River Parkway is their pride and joy and a big reason they were attracted to Sacramento in the first place. Where else can you find a river parkway that stretches 23 miles through multiple growing communities and offers such an expanse of recreation and natural beauty?

Yet the American River Parkway has a problem. Although its fans are spread far and wide, many of them are so dedicated to their individual leisure that they've overlooked what is happening to the parkway and the rest of the regional parks system.

How else could you explain the fact that county supervisors, over the years, have steadily decreased support for the parkway and other parks? Why have supervisors been allowed to permit new houses and mansions that loom over scenic parts of the parkway?

Why have they approved reductions in ranger staffing that only add to concerns about safety along the parkway? Why haven't supervisors advocated for a dedicated funding stream for the parkway and other county parks, such as that which voters approved for the East Bay Regional Parks District?

Jim Jones, a retired Aerojet engineer who helped lead a successful 1972 campaign for a $12.6 million bond issue for the parkway and other county parks, is one of many advocates fed up with the county's treatment of these public lands.

"The county cannot wait to get out from under the 'burden' of the American River Parkway and the regional park system," says Jones. They treat the parks like a liability, he adds, even though "they are the one real quality-of-life accomplishment the county can point to of the last half-century."

The American River Parkway is the product of an era when people put a high value on regional parks free and open to all. Increasingly, this notion of open access is being lost. As it spirals into a fiscal abyss, the county is considering proposals to transfer Gibson Ranch to an outside operator, including possibly a for-profit company. In any discussion of parks, county supervisors talk about ways to make "users" pay, as if park visitors were the only beneficiaries of places such as the American River Parkway.

As of 2009, the American River Parkway was attracting an estimated 8 million visitors yearly. A 2006 study concluded it generated more than $300 million yearly for the local economy. Given the multiple benefits to Sacramento and its way of life, is it too much to ask that this parkway be properly managed and maintained?

Putting Sacramento on the map

It was a city planner named John Nolen who is credited with first coming up with the idea of an American River Parkway. In 1915, he submitted a city plan that proposed establishment of a continuous park along the American River.

In 1959, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance that created the county's Department of Parks and Recreation. The next year, the county started acquiring land for the parkway. By 1982, it had grown to 4,600 acres.

Those were glory days of the American River Parkway. Sunset magazine and other publications ran glossy spreads about the beauty of the parkway, helping to put Sacramento on the map. Yet even then, the seeds were being sown for future neglect.

According to Ron Suter, retired county parks director, things changed in a real way after Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that lowered and limited property taxes. Counties were forced to make cuts in "non-mandated" services. Spending for health, assistance for the poor and public safety were protected; parks were expendable.

Park ranger services were sustained, but everything else was cut, starting with park maintenance. Interpretive services were turned over to the nonprofit American River Natural History Association and its corps of 200 volunteers at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center. Resource management – such as removing invasive plants and restoring wildlife habitat – was largely turned over to volunteers.

Reduced were ranger-led fly-fishing clinics, nature talks, canoeing and tours of Indian archeological sites. "Those dried up when the funding dried up," laments Suter. "Now, rangers are simply police."

Things have gotten even worse in recent years.

While state and local bonds and federal transportation funds have kept the 23-mile bike trail itself in good shape, step a few feet away and you see the effects of slow deterioration.

Maintenance staff, which had been whittled away in the last seven years, has been cut in half over the last two budget years. The county has reduced 10 permanent workers along the parkway to six and 10 seasonal workers to two. With 24 restrooms and 324 trash cans, it's no longer possible to reach all of them every day. Restrooms and trash cans get cleaned two to three days a week.

The winter project list keeps piling up as maintenance is deferred on water and sewer systems, fire breaks and fallen trees. When a picnic table or shade awning breaks, it is removed rather than repaired.

In 2007, the county had 22 park rangers. Today there are 10.

The impacts:

Gone are the two rangers devoted to handling illegal camping in the first five miles of the parkway.

Gone are the special patrols at Mile 14 to Mile 20 rafting sites to control public drunkenness and fighting.

As the county has cut back on law enforcement, the effects are readily visible. East of Discovery Park on a recent weekday, a trio of men could be seen illegally riding their all- terrain vehicles near the foot and bike path. Several days later, a pair of men on off-road mini bikes were spotted riding in the same area.

Volunteers have stepped up as the county has stepped back. They carry out nature walks, history talks and re-enactments. They help plant trees and remove invasive species.

In the parkway, the American River Natural History Association and the American River Parkway Foundation have been among the stalwarts. The association runs the Effie Yeaw Nature Center. The foundation organizes the annual Great American River Clean Up (it's coming up Saturday, Sept. 25). They run the Adopt-the-Parkway program, too. Last year, they took over responsibility for removing invasive plants.

But as much as volunteers do, they can't do it all. They can't be asked to clean restrooms daily or arrest drunks waving weapons. They can't safely interfere when illegal off-roader riders tear around on part of the parkway.

What future for parks?

Over the years, there have been repeated attempts to reverse the slow slide in support for the parkway. In 1994, county voters were asked to create a regional parks district through Measure B, which would have assessed homeowners $10 per year for park acquisition, maintenance and capital improvements (raising $5 million a year for 30 years). Little money was spent on the campaign, however, and Measure B was narrowly defeated.

Two years ago, government officials and community groups started meeting to consider various options, including formation of an assessment district for the parkway made up of nearby property owners. But those talks broke down in disagreements between county officials and those from adjoining cities. Advocacy groups were also split, with some arguing that support for the parkway should be countywide.

During its short history, the American River Parkway has been a truly public place, where people don't pay for the privilege to enjoy it. The parkway, in effect, remains an emblem of the traditional American park ideal – property owned by all of us that everyone may visit and enjoy.

Elmer C. Aldrich, a state parks administrator who died in May at age 95, was one of the visionaries who hoped to secure the future of this ideal. In 1952, he wrote a piece titled, "A Long-Needed Park System for the Sacramento Region," which envisioned not just an American River greenway but a park that that would extend along the Sacramento River from Verona, 15 miles north of the city of Sacramento, to Rio Vista, 50 miles south. He advocated a model like the East Bay Regional Park District, which was established during the Great Depression with a nickel-per-$100 value property assessment.

Aldrich's vision should give us something to think about. Parks advocates of the past helped find and save the treasures we enjoy now. So what will we pass on to future generations?

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