Path and bridge would be built in sketchy area
The old bridge burned years ago.
A scene that has seen better days: A damaged picnic table, the armature for a missing interpretive sign and a burned-out bridge in the distance. Del Norte Triplicate/Emily Jo Cureton
Now, plans are afoot to build a bike trail with a new bridge through what the state calls Elk Creek Wetlands Wildlife Area, 160 acres of riparian, swamp and marsh habitat situated on the fringes of Crescent City.
This month Del Norte County’s decade-old intention to construct a trail on part of the old Hobbs-Wall Railroad right-of-way through this area cleared a regulatory hurdle when the state’s Coastal Commission decided that concerns raised by a local conservation group did not present any “substantial issues.”
Imagine a line of pavement one mile long by eight feet wide, running from the eastern end of 2nd Street over the lower part of Elk Creek, along Maiden Lane and on to Howland Hill Road.
Sounds like a neat way to get from the Bertsch Tract residential area to Crescent City’s main shopping hub, said a spokesman for the Friends of Del Norte, Don Gillespie.
But: “The county-approved project lacks plans for maintaining the trail facility and controlling vandalism and homeless encampments,” according to an appeal filed by the Friends, which was submitted to the state in May and overruled this month.
The Friends took issue (one of five cited) with the impact humans will have, and have long had, on environmentally sensitive habitats along Elk Creek.
“However, such activities are not uncommon to many coastal habitats on the outskirts of coastal cities and towns … Elk Creek and its wetlands continue to provide valuable habitat that is not severely degraded,” the Coastal Commission staff determined.
Sheriff’s Commander Bill Steven cited public intoxication as “a good start,” for describing what kinds of human activities go on in the densely wooded areas around Elk Creek.
“You’ve got a good deal of those people that are out there living in these tarps and tents,” Steven said.
Crescent City Police Chief Doug Plack agreed that it’s a well-documented site for illegal camping.
Usually, camping indicates some sort of temporary situation.
Sheryl Dickson lived for four years in the same spot near Elk Creek, behind Safeway at the extension of 5th Street, according to statements her neighbors made to police back in 2010.
She was found dead in her tent that year, apparently the victim of rape before alcohol poisoning.
Her camp site was about four city blocks, as the heron flies, from the western beginning of the proposed bike trail.
“The amount of brush or greenery that you are going to clear to put in a bike trail is a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the wooded area,” Steven said of the landscape’s inherent seclusion.
“A majority of the crime that’s being committed out there, most of which is unreported, is going to involve just those people (the homeless) ... Your average person that walks or rides their bike through that trail is probably not going to have any problems,” he said.
The first nature trail loop around Elk Creek was established in the early 1990s by the Department of Fish and Game, which owns the land. On paper, it’s managed by Del Norte County.
“There were picnic tables, there were bridges, but they were picked apart and burned,” said County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina, attributing the tear-downs to perpetrators unnamed and presumed homeless.
Last week a still-standing picnic table along the water nearer to 2nd Street shaded half a dozen beer cans and a disintegrating mattress pad; a toothbrush was wedged in between the boards scarred by initials, expletives and peace signs.
A willow swayed in the summer breeze as a young frog jettisoned through the shallows.
The armature for a missing interpretive panel stood nearby, with nothing left to say.
Now the county is proposing “to install more educational and interpretive displays along the trail to in part help educate the public and build greater appreciation for the natural resources of the area,” according to the environmental permitting documents.
Sarina said that the parks crew (that’d be two full-timers and a director) have to prioritize projects from Smith River to Klamath. Elk Creek doesn’t usually make the cut, though a tsunami relief-funded crew did some work last year. The official maintenance agreement between the county and the Department of Fish and Game expires in the next year or two, he added.
Over the last 10 years, $100,000 in federal grant funds have gone to planning a foot-powered reincarnation of the rail route that once connected 13 logging camps.
Some $2 million in construction costs could be funded by state transportation grants, according to county planners.
Richard Miles is an avid observer of local politics who rides a bike to get around town. He’s called the Triplicate’s newsroom several times to weight in on the bike lane proposal:
“When I first moved here, Elk Creek Park was a day-use area. It was safe to walk back there. I would not suggest right now it’s safe to walk back there,” he said. “The solution has never been discussed.”