April 1, 2006 Article, Blogroll No Comments

Perception Versus Reality

This article appeared originally in the Spring 2006 edition of the Sierra Club Yahi Group newsletter
Whenever you read any marketing literature about Chico, it always includes a prominent mention of Bidwell Park, frequently described as the “Crown Jewel of Chico.” Real estate ads often tout a home’s proximity to the park, as in “Walk to Park”, “Close to Upper Park.” Bidwell Park is the first place we take visitors to our community. Newcomers to Chico, especially retirees, cite Bidwell Park as one of the main reasons they moved to the area.
Year-round, thousands of people walk, jog, run and hike in the park, walk their dogs, ride their bikes and horses, use the children’s play areas, visit the observatory or Horseshoe Lake, participate in public and private park events, look at wildlife, play golf or enjoy Upper Park views. On warm days, many thousands more use the park for swimming and picnics, play softball and horseshoes or just enjoy being outdoors.

You might think that the benefits that the park brings to our community, both economic and in our quality of life here (not to mention the affection we feel for the park and the pride we feel in having a world-class natural landscape in our midst), would be reflected in the funding and care that the park receives from Chico residents. Let’s examine whether Bidwell Park is, in fact, Chico’s crown jewel, its poor stepchild or something in between.

First, we need to briefly review the park’s funding sources for maintenance and capital projects. All of the park’s maintenance is paid for from Chico’s General Fund, whose five biggest sources of income are sales tax (43%), utility  tax (15%), DMV fee (12%), Interfund transfers (10%) and property taxes (8%). The Park Division receives about $3 million per year, but this amount also funds the care of 30,000 street trees, 10 undeveloped open spaces and greenways, and 9 developed parks. Permanent park staffing consists of 7 maintenance workers, a field supervisor, and 2 rangers for the entire 3670 acre park. Of course, they’re also responsible for the other 19 Park Division parks and open space areas. The park’s capital projects are funded from a variety of sources, with perhaps $100,000 per year from the General Fund, and the remaining provided primarily by transfers from other Chico Funds, and state park bond per-capita funds. For example, the recent One Mile Recreation Area Irrigation and Lighting project received $67,000 from the Park Operating Fund and $101,000 from Proposition 12. There’s currently no development impact fee (i.e. a fee paid for each new Chico residence) for park maintenance or capital projects. So, unless you’ve bought an expensive vehicle recently, you probably haven’t contributed much towards maintaining the park.Of course, those who enjoy or benefit from the park could make a direct financial contribution. Individuals and businesses can specify exactly how donations made to the city for park purposes should be spent and, to the extent allowed by law, this donation is tax-deductible. However, the amount of money actually donated by the Chico community to the park is miniscule. Some goods and services are occasionally provided by Chico businesses, but this doesn’t amount to much either. While Enloe Hospital has received millions in donations over the last few years, direct donations to Bidwell Park have been considerably less, in perhaps the $10-20,000 range during the same time period.

One might argue that Chicoans instead contribute to the park’s welfare by volunteering in the park. It’s true that there are a number of organizations that provide volunteer programs within the park. These include Park Watch and VIPS (Volunteers In Police Service), which act as the “eyes and ears” of the park. As they walk or ride throughout the park, their members look for and report problems, answer questions, and generally provide a watchful presence. Their time provides a significant majority of the approximately 18,000 park volunteer hours last year. These two programs have a total of about 150 volunteers.

The Chico Cat Coalition rescues cats and kittens that have been dumped in the park, provides care and finds them new homes. Their work benefits the park by protecting the wildlife species that would otherwise be injured or killed by these cats (not to mention providing a high-quality and long life to animals that otherwise would have a short and painful one). Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance volunteers test the creek’s water quality and have been trying for years to get a grant to repair the Iron Canyon Fish Ladder. These two groups have dedicated volunteers, but are few in number.

What about groups which provide hands-on park labor? Butte Environmental Council’s annual Bidwell Park and Creeks of Chico Cleanup attracts about 50-75 volunteers for the park cleanup segment. The California Native Plant Society Mt Lassen Chapter provides about 100 volunteer hours a year for Spanish broom removal in Upper Park. Streaminders relies on volunteers to plant and maintain their 2 small restoration sites in Lower Park. CSU, Chico’s annual Scour and Devour service project provides about 150 students for 2-3 hours. One segment of the Kids and Creeks elementary school educational program is invasive plant removal in Bidwell Park and replanting with native plants. They provide several hundred hours of volunteer labor to the park annually. A mountain biking group, the Tuesday/Thursday Ride Club, has adopted a couple of the south side trails and works on them as needed. The Park Division itself offers trail maintenance volunteer days in the spring and fall, but only rarely does anyone show up to help. The group I work with, Friends of Bidwell Park, contributed 2850 hours of on-site volunteer labor last year, primarily removing invasive plants and picking up trash. Most of these hours came from a couple of very large group projects and the rest from a small group of dedicated individuals who toil week after week.

In all, I estimate that fewer than 250 people volunteer in Bidwell Park on a regular basis, with another 400-500 mostly students participating in one-time community service activities. This is a dismal show of support for a resource that is supposedly so beloved by Chico.

Maybe this lack of financial and physical support by the community would not matter so much, except that Bidwell Park has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance amid increased park usage. There are serious erosion problems, both on the trails and off. Invasive plants, such as vinca, privet and ivy, have smothered Lower Park’s understory vegetation and other invasives, like starthistle and European olive threaten Middle and Upper Parks. There’s no plan for fire management in the park’s various vegetation zones or money to implement such a plan. There’s never been a comprehensive assessment of the park’s flora and fauna, which is essential to have as a baseline for monitoring the park’s future health. Sycamore Pool needs $2.1 million in repairs and upgrades in order to continue to function as Chico’s main swimming facility. If, like the children’s game where each child decides how he or she would hypothetically spend a large sum of money, someone gave a million dollars to the park and it had to be spent immediately, there would be no shortage of ways to spend that money.

So, Chico seems to have a split personality regarding Bidwell Park. They love to use it, boast about it, and write about it. They may not want to spend more of their tax dollars on it (at least not in ways that can be identified as a separate fee or tax), although the City Council has been reluctant to even ask the question. It also appears that they don’t want to make personal financial or time commitments to help the park or perhaps that they just don’t think that it needs any extra help. After all, it’s survived for 100 years without a lot of public support. Crown Jewel? Stepchild? I guess it depends on your perspective.

Susan Mason
President, Friends of Bidwell Park


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