By Bill McEwen
Glaciers are melting faster than the 2-mile extension of the Lewis S. Eaton Trail is being built.
It has been almost 15 years since the San Joaquin River Conservancy purchased about 500 acres in the river bottom with $10 million in state and foundation funding.
The goal then was the same as now: Enable more people in Fresno, Madera, Clovis and surrounding communities to enjoy the recreational opportunities along the river.
Identifying the right spot to provide vehicle access to the river bottom and the future trail has turned into a big public debate the past few years. At this point, opinions are unlikely to change. Everyone is dug in deep and unwilling to compromise.
Paying for Trail Maintenance
But the access question masks a bigger issue that has held up creating this amenity. Where will the funding come from to maintain the trail?
While the state of California proudly helps pays for land acquisition to create trails, it doesn’t help out with maintenance. And I don’t expect that to change. State officials already are dealing with a huge maintenance backlog for California’s 1.6 million acre parks system, which is the second-largest in the nation behind Alaska’s.
In the final hours of this year’s session, the Legislature put the $4 billion California Parks, Environment and Water Bond on the June 5, 2018, ballot. The proposal, which passed with strong support from Democratic Party lawmakers, includes provisions that would direct major funding to poor communities such as Fresno. Specifically, there is a $6 million allocation for the San Joaquin River Conservancy. But, best as I can tell from reading the fine print, there will be no money set aside for continuing maintenance.
Allow Limited Retail Development
I have a solution. It is one that will be viewed as heresy by my environmentalist friends.
Why not designate a few acres in the conservancy-held land for a couple of restaurants and small retail shops? Perhaps a place to rent bikes and canoes. The land would remain with the conservancy but the lease income would help pay for trail maintenance.
Tavern on the Green enhances Central Park in New York City. And there are plenty of examples around the country of public river trails that allow some commercial activity nearby.
Fresno State football fans, for example, came back from this year’s game with Alabama raving about the walking/cycling trail along the banks of the Black Warrior River in downtown Tuscaloosa and the farmer’s market there. It’s a market unlike any in Fresno and is available for receptions and special events.
Something similar in the San Joaquin River bottom would upgrade the Eaton Trail extension and River Park West. It would make them destination locales, attracting visitors and boosting local pride.
In addition, the more “eyes” on the trail and the park, the less vandalism there will be.
Limited development is something to consider after the conservancy board decides the access point for the trail. That meeting is 10 a.m. Wednesday at Fresno City Hall.