The completion of the Arana Gulch multi-use trail project connecting Broadway and Brommer Streets has stirred up a lot of mixed feelings amongst Santa Cruz locals.
Some people are outraged that this mostly untouched 68-acre green space has been torn up by tractors, fenced off, and partly paved over. But others are enjoying the many positive results of this project including bike safety, increased accessibility, and surprisingly, a chance at survival for an endangered and endemic subspecies of Santa Cruz tarplant.
From Wild Space to Tamed Urban Park
It was really hard to watch the quiet, open meadows at Arana Gulch transform into a noisy, congested construction zone bisected by chain link fences. During my college days, I would run the greenbelt’s under-used dirt paths to escape people, cars, and my anxieties. A little over a year ago, my boyfriend and I took a sunset walk with our cattle dog through Arana Gulch and the serenity and beauty there sold us on the house we were debating whether or not to buy.
I, like many other Santa Cruzans, saw the multi-use trail project as the destruction of not only a rare and beautiful habitat but also of a place I called home. It was a place I used for personal reflection, escape, and rejuvenation. I liked it because not many other people used it so it felt like mine, and I wanted to keep it that way.
But perhaps not all places are meant to be kept wild and secret. Perhaps, after more than 20 years of controversy and court battles, it’s time to accept that Arana Gulch has been drastically altered and there’s no going back.
A New Outdoor Community Space
Walking through Arana Gulch today is more like a walk in a public park versus an exploration through a wild open space. The paved trails (fortunately not regular pavement but rather a pervious concrete that allows rainwater to pass through) are bustling with pedestrian and cyclist traffic.
Couples with strollers and little ones on push bikes stop to read the new interpretive signs describing the park’s fragile ecosystem; cyclists commuting across town maneuver around those out for a leisurely stroll; elderly folks stop to enjoy sweeping views of the meadow or harbor at one of the new benches; children play in the low-slung branches of an old oak tree on the greenbelt’s outer edges.
Reclaiming the Land
A sense of community permeates the landscape. It feels like the whole town has come together to reclaim a space that before felt unsafe at times due to drug-users and mentally unstable homeless people using it as a place to take a hit or a nap.
I never did feel entirely comfortable walking the outer dirt trails or stopping to write in my journal at the very oak tree that children now play in. It’s refreshing to see the community reclaim this land and interact with it in a way that hasn’t happened perhaps since the 1980s when cattle grazed here.
This land has been managed in some way since the native peoples of the California coast lived here. They used controlled burns to maintain the prairie’s biodiversity and actively pruned and even removed certain less useful plants.
Of course, the new trails, fencing, and bridges are a far cry from the type of land management practiced by these peoples hundreds of years ago, but it is a human attempt, naturally flawed, to improve the landscape for both the people and native flora and fauna.
As a community space and cycling commute, Arana Gulch is a success, but there are a few ways in which the new space falls short. So all positivity aside, here are a few reasons why the new multi-use trail project at Arana Gulch is not all it’s cracked up to be.
- Wide Concrete Paths Destroyed Tarplant Habitat: The construction of the new pervious concrete trails required heavy bulldozing and disruption of a designated environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA) critical to the endangered tarplant. The paths are four feet wide with several more feet of disturbed soil on either side, compared to the old one to two feet wide dirt paths. Some of this destruction is sadly irreversible.
- Potential Negative Impact to Arana Creek: The retaining walls and ramp built to connect Brommer Street to Arana Gulch are built in a floodplain over Arana Creek. This construction may have negatively impacted three Federally Endangered species known to use the perennial stream: steelhead trout, coho salmon, and tidewater goby. (It is not clear how the walls and ramp may have impacted this habitat.)
- From Open Space to Commuter Route: A quiet, mostly natural green space has been transformed into a bustling, paved thoroughfare for bicyclists.
- Habitat Fragmentation: The new fencing fragments a habitat used by coyotes, skunks, woodrats, and other native mammals. It is unclear if these animals will still use the open prairie here with fencing and cattle making this a potentially unsafe corridor.
And now for a more positive outlook:
Arguments for the Multi-Use Trail Project:
- Defined Trail System: The new designated pervious concrete trails keep people from widening dirt pathways and trampling vegetation. (Yes, it’s true that the new trails themselves have in a sense “trampled” vegetation but work with me here.) The new trails avoid the tarplant population areas except for one subpopulation where tarplants have not been seen since 1998.
- 90% of the Greenspace is Protected: According to the Arana Trail Project website “over 90% of the green space is protected and closed to the public” giving plant and wildlife species a chance to coexist with people in the greenbelt. This is especially apparent in the acreage around Arana Creek. It appears that, with the exception of the new Brommer Street Bridge, this riparian habitat has remained untouched.
- Greater Accessibility: The new trail system allows people of all physical abilities to experience Arana Gulch which means more people will be exposed to and learn about the unique ecosystem in this space.
- Expanded Public Access Leads to a Safer Space: More community members using the space means it is far less likely to be a haven for drug users and people with bad intentions.
- Safer Bike Route from Broadway to Brommer Street: On December 26, 2014 a 63-year-old man was killed in a hit and run when riding his bike along Soquel Avenue towards the East side—just blocks from the new route through Arana Gulch. Soquel Avenue is a notoriously unsafe route for bikers. The new trails give cyclists a safe, speedy route from Midtown to the Eastside, hopefully encouraging more people to leave their cars in the driveway and commute by bike.
- Conditions for the Endangered Tarplant May Actually Improve: After many years of pretty much no land management in Arana Gulch the tarplant has suffered, its population steadily decreasing year after year. From the 1880s to the 1980s, cattle grazed on this land effectively keeping nonnative grasses in check and promoting the growth of native plant species, like the tarplant. Even though many view the newly installed cattle fences as an eyesore, they are actually supported by Friends of Arana Gulch, the Sierra Club, and the California Native Plant Society. Recent research has shown that cattle grazing is most likely the best land management strategy to improve and spread growth of the tarplant and other native species, perhaps eventually making up for the plants killed during construction.
- New School Programs at Arana Gulch: There is rumor that outdoor education programs will be offered in Arana Gulch, perhaps through the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, using the new interpretive panels. Hopefully these plans will come to fruition and more schoolchildren will have the opportunity to use nature as their classroom. Maybe this once wild space, now criss-crossed by fencing and permanent trails, will get young minds thinking about the definition of a wild space and how we can live in harmony with the natural world. They may question who the present state of Arana Gulch most benefits (people or wildlife?) and come up with their own creative solutions for managing our green spaces.
Let’s Look at the Bright Side
We don’t yet know how the Santa Cruz tarplant will fare with the new trail system, but the increased usage of Arana Gulch by the community is already apparent. If this project really does get more people outside and aware of the ecosystems like estuaries and rare coastal prairie found at Arana Gulch, are the fences and paved trails really so terrible?
Video courtesy of People Power, shot by Greg McPheeters.