Fri, Mar

State Takes up Difficult Task of Setting aside Agricultural Land for Recreation

State parks line the California coast like jewels on a movie star's necklace. But go inland to the vast Central Valley, and the jewels are replaced by farms, housing tracts and orchards. Except for a cluster of seven museums and historic sites in Sacramento, state parks are few and far between.

STOCKTON, Calif. — State parks line the California coast like jewels on a movie star's necklace.

But go inland to the vast Central Valley, and the jewels are replaced by farms, housing tracts and orchards. Except for a cluster of seven museums and historic sites in Sacramento, state parks are few and far between.

That bothers Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks who lives in Davis, a Valley town, and wishes she had more places here to hike with her 10-year-old daughter.

Coleman said Valley residents aren't getting their share of access to picnic sites, scenic trails and museums. And even though her department doesn't currently have money to change that, she has launched an effort to correct the imbalance. Officials on Wednesday will begin a yearlong series of meetings with Valley residents to get their input on what parks should be built or expanded here over the next 20 years.

"We need spaces for families to come together," Coleman said.


Local officials, preservationists and park advocates in San Joaquin County welcome Coleman's initiative. But they warned the hostility of farm interests to public parks makes it difficult to create public open spaces or to prevent land from being developed for housing. And they say time is running short to find park sites.

"It is very apparent we are being engulfed with people," said David Beadles, administrator of San Joaquin County Parks. "All you have to do is look at what is happening in Tracy and all of the other cities."

Beadles said he's been frustrated in his efforts to preserve some of the county's remaining oak woodlands. And those that are in parks -- like Oak Grove Regional Park on Eight Mile Road -- are becoming islands surrounded by development.

"In order to ensure a quality environment for future generations, we'd better set aside some land so we don't just become one big chunk of asphalt," Beadles said.

The shortage of state parks is particularly dire in San Joaquin County. The county has two: Caswell Memorial State Park on the Stanislaus River south of Manteca and Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area on the Alameda County line in the hills southwest of Tracy.

All of Caswell's campsites were reserved last weekend, and the 26 picnic sites at the two parks combined works out to one picnic site for every 24,254 county residents. That's five times as many people per state park picnic site as the state average.

Beadles said that city and county parks can't keep up with demand. On busy spring weekends, some families set up their picnics on grassy median strips between rows of parked cars at Micke Grove Regional Park.

State officials will find that San Joaquin County residents have no shortage of ideas for parks, whether state-supported or not.

Peggy Ward Engh is a preservationist and author involved with the county's effort to preserve Harmony Grove Church, built in 1859 in Lockeford. She'd like to see an effort to preserve a stand of stately oaks known as Locke Grove that was the site of annual picnics in Lockeford for many years.

"At one time, that attracted 20,000 people to the Lockeford area when the picnics occurred," Engh said.

Mary Mitracos, a member of the San Joaquin County Parks and Recreation Commission, was a member of a committee that tried four years ago to create a parkway along Old River.

That initiative was defeated by landowners who feared that any park could bring troublemakers to their fields and eventually interfere with their ability to sell their land for the best price to developers.

"The site that we were looking at, like everything else, the price has gone up," Mitracos said. "I don't see that anything is going to be happening for the foreseeable future."

Other proposals include a historic park recognizing the invention of the Caterpillar tractor tread near Stockton, parkways along area rivers and preservation of the remnants of the brick-making town of Carnegie in the hills above Tracy.

But Coleman and others admit that the combination of San Joaquin County farmer hostility to parks and the workings of park financing could doom projects here.

Mitracos, for example, admires the river parkways that offer bike and hiking paths along the American River in Sacramento and the San Joaquin River near Fresno.

But Kenny Watkins, president of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau Board of Directors, said he and other farmers wouldn't welcome such parkways here.

"Sixty percent of the state is already owned by the government. What more do they want?"

"I would say we have parks already," Watkins said. "We have Carnegie motorcycle park on the west side. We have Caswell in Ripon."

And Watkins said the shortage of river parkways here is not a problem because Sacramento and Fresno do have them. "They are an hour away. Get in your car and go."

That attitude is partly why the Central Valley got so little money from bond measures passed in 2000 and 2002 that included a combined $2 billion for parks, Coleman and other officials said.

"Money flows to ripe projects," Coleman said. "Money does not flow to projects where there is enormous dissent."

San Joaquin County has a long history of resisting efforts to preserve land or create public open space. In 1996, for example, the Farm Bureau persuaded county supervisors to kill a proposal to include the Mokelumne Coast-to-Crest trail in the county's general plan.

The result a decade later is that the trail is completed from the Bay Area to Antioch, and also has sections completed or in the works near reservoirs in the foothills and across National Forest lands in the Sierra Nevada.

But there's a huge gap in the trail across San Joaquin County, said Helen Larson, treasurer of the board of the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail Council.

"If somebody doesn't get moving on this pretty soon, it is going to be a lost cause."

Coleman said that she hopes her series of hearings will bring communities together to create the parks people need in the Valley, even if those parks aren't owned by the state.

She wants to avoid what happened in Los Angeles, where her agency is now paying almost $1 million an acre to buy land to make up for a shortage of parks there.

"We hope we can have a dialogue with the agricultural community and identify issues of common interest," Coleman said.

Building consensus will allow San Joaquin County residents and others in the Valley to compete better with coastal groups if and when park money is available.

"Planning for the future of the Valley is the least we can do so we will be ready if there is another bond," Coleman said.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News