By Randy Abbott
Not everyone is happy about the City of Chico’s plans to permanently develop 40 acres of Tuscan ridge-top wilderness for Chico’s disc golf community in the city’s historic Upper Bidwell Park. Friends of Bidwell Park, Citizens Advisory Committee representatives from the local Sierra Club and Altacal Audubon and others have voiced their concerns about the project. The proposed development is subject to an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which should be released after the update of the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan is completed and approved.
As with any project that significantly affects the quality of our local environment, the public should understand the issues. While the local weekly and the daily paper have covered the issue to some degree, an equal or greater amount of press has been given over to fanning the flames of controversy. Letters to the editor have referred to those who prefer not to allow the multi-course development as ‘extremists’, ‘obstructionists’ or ‘enviro-nazis’, among other explicative characterizations.
Concerned citizens point to several issues relating not only to the environment at the fragile site, but to the inconsistencies with the proposed project and the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan and City’s General Plan, which were overlooked when the project was first proposed. In addition, some critics are saying the mere fact that the project was allowed to be constructed before the environmental review process was complete, before the City had formally addressed the land in question in a park-wide management plan, raises a red flag as to how effectively the City of Chico manages Bidwell Park.
The 40-acre site of the proposed project was purchased by the City as a formal addition to Bidwell Park in 1994 through a land trust, which had shortly before acquired the ex-rangeland from the BLM. Although the land came with a history of human impact, there was no development of any type. The ancient Blue Oak forests, spectacular wildflowers (including rare Butte County Checkerbloom, and Bidwell’s Knotweed), ridge-top wetlands, fantastic views of Upper Park and the Sacramento Valley as well as the presence of the historic Humboldt Wagon Road, all make this site something very special, even unique.
The disc golf courses (there are two 18 hole courses and 4 additional holes) first appeared in 1997, without any formal planning or city authorization.
This, critics have charged, amounts to nothing more than a bootleg abuse of the Park.
In October of 1999, after two years of deliberation, the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission (BPPC) voted to formulate a plan and arrange an environmental review of the proposal. The environmental review document was discussed at the Sept. 30, 2002 BPPC meeting, but no action was taken, nor was there any formal acceptance of any of the revised versions of this document at subsequent BPPC meetings.
In November of 2002, the City published a third version of its attempts at a successful environmental document, a “proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration”. This document pointed to the fact that Butte County Checkerbloom grew directly adjacent to some of the proposed fairways. A letter from environmental attorney Keith Wagner dated February 27, 2003 pointed out that because there could be no reasonable expectation that these plants would not suffer direct impacts as a result of disc play, a complete EIR would be the only legally allowable environmental review for the project.
The proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration also pointed out that ridge top vernal pools would require protection of some degree, however disc golfing continues at the site to this day with no mitigation.
According to Park Director Dennis Beardsley, “I don’t think any one realized at the time [how much use the facility would receive].” That might explain why the City staff and the BPPC never stopped to check the park wide goals of the Master Management Plan adopted in 1990. That plan clearly sets limits on the type of recreation (passive vs. active) and the degree of impact to the environment that should be appropriately allowed as a result of recreation in the Park. The plan also emphasizes the need to encourage developed recreational opportunities outside of Bidwell Park lest the Park be unnecessarily impacted.
The City has agreed to produce an EIR, which according to Beardsley, will be presented after the draft updated MMP is approved by the BPPC. Impacts that should be addressed in the EIR include projected impacts to the thin soils at the site (compaction and erosion), impacts to special status plant and animal species, habitat fragmentation, impacts to Blue Oaks, impacts to wetlands, impacts to wildlife, impacts to aesthetics and impacts to the recreational opportunities of other park user groups.
Citizens of Chico await the draft EIR, which will be available from the City, for a public comment period of 45 days.
Perhaps what has environmentalists most on edge is the potential this project has to open the doors to further recreational developments in Bidwell Park.
“…We are uncomfortable with the trend of continuing to replace native vegetation and wildlife with manicured fields and courses,” states Josephine Guardino of Friends of Bidwell Park.
Impacts to the site are already visible now, but the bigger threat is likely the long term, cumulative impacts; especially as the city grows and the sport becomes more popular. Disc golf courses in large cities are often so popular that they are packed with players from morning till sunset. Other communities in the U.S. are now experiencing significant damage to trees and shrubs from the much denser, narrower and hard thrown descendents of the original Frisbee as well as soil erosion and compaction along fairways and targets.
Bellingham, WA, San Francisco, CA and Bozeman, MT are as embroiled in the controversy over disc golf as we are here in Chico. The lead urban foresters in those cities have acknowledged the damage to the bark, leaf canopy and overall health of their trees as a result of the sport. A visit to the Chico courses reveals impacts to our own ancient Blue Oaks as leaf-bearing small stems facing the tee are completely missing on the fairway trees.
In a letter dated December 8, 2004 to Dennis Beardsley from Andrew Conlin, a soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Conlin states, “What I observed at the site is widespread erosion of the thin topsoil and the compaction of the remaining subsoil”. He also states, “These shallow soils have a very limited capacity to withstand intense use over a large proportion of the site.”
Friends of Bidwell Park have expressed other concerns with the project, including identifying the cost and sources of funding for maintenance, threat of wildfire resulting from cigarette smoking, unauthorized expansion of the courses, and mitigation enforcement.
It remains to be seen whether or not members of the environmental community can convince the City of Chico to reconsider the idea of opening Upper Bidwell Park to developed recreation. Publication of and subsequent commentary on the draft EIR should provide more information on this subject.
The results of the project proposal will eventually be voted on by the BPPC, and the Chico City council in turn. Agendas for public meetings are posted on the City’s website @ www.chico.ca.us.
This article originally appeared in the Butte Environmental Council’s Summer/Fall 2005 Environmental News.