Parkway’s a mess, but it’s safer than you think
By Gary Delsohn
Recent hand wringing about the American River Parkway being destroyed by illegal camping reminds me of the old Yogi Berra line: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
If you listen to the critiques, including those from such stalwart advocates as the American River Parkway Foundation, you’d think the popular trail is a dangerous place best avoided at all costs.
“The parkway is in crisis,” Dustin Luton, president of the foundation’s board, wrote city and county officials this year.
“The environmental and public safety impacts of the growing number of incidents of illegal camping threaten the parkway’s beauty and sustainability and are a hazard to communities, schools and businesses that border the parkway.
This includes fire danger, diminished water quality and hazardous materials resulting from intravenous drug use.”
Sometimes it’s necessary to use harsh language to get people’s attention. But this kind of fear-based messaging could result in fewer people using the parkway.
Don’t mistake my argument for indifference to the problem of homeless encampments along the American River. I have been a frequent user of the bike trail since coming to Sacramento in 1989 and am distressed to see encampments and the problems they cause. But this is a much bigger problem than protecting the parkway.
The 32-mile parkway is one of the most valued and beloved urban amenities in the Sacramento region. Meandering from Folsom Lake to the Sacramento River, it provides a pastoral escape from noise and traffic. It’s one of the longest paved urban bike trails in the nation, passing through lovely and serene landscape in the middle of a major urban area.
On crisp summer mornings, you can peacefully run, cycle or stroll along the trail from Discovery Park to Folsom Lake. The most threatening creatures are likely to be wild turkeys, deer, coyotes, jackrabbits, raccoons and skittish squirrels.
Most of the homeless encampments are near Downtown in a relatively isolated area. I’ve had to pedal fast more than a few times when chased by stray dogs from the camps, but head east toward Folsom and you rarely see a homeless person.
Last summer, more than 200 fires were set along the trail, fouling our air and burning 15 percent of the parkway. The scars are present still. But the best thing the city and county can do to protect the parkway is to deal effectively with homelessness throughout our community.
Other cities, including Houston and San Antonio, have found answers. It takes resources, creativity, cooperation from public and nonprofit entities and residents. People living on the street are a terrible commentary on our society, but progress can be made.
For another opinion, I reached out to my friend, Debra Banks, the most passionate cycling advocate I know. She’s executive director of the nonprofit Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates.
Banks is adamant that the encampments are harming the parkway and need to be removed. But she also tells me “98 percent of my time spent riding up and down the parkway is good to great, even down to Discovery Park. Mostly I ride during daylight hours, but I have been on it at night a number of times. I have never felt unsafe while on the parkway. Ever.”
She mentioned the fire damage, which she appropriately called “sad to absorb and look at.”
And she says, “But paradise lost? No. Paradise on the downslide, sure, but I think it can be restored. Poor management and old policies that need to change and quickly.”
Banks continues, “I’d love it if we could relocate everyone off the parkway who is illegally camping on it. I think the land would restore itself and the environment would heal. I don’t see quite how to implement that strategy and I do think that anyone who is relocated off the parkway needs a place to go. We are way behind on that work.”
The city and county are pushing measures that could result in an end to illegal encampments later this year. But like Banks says, people rousted from tents will need a place to go. It’s far from clear how that will happen.
When that gets solved, the parkway “crisis” will get solved, too.
Gary Delsohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.