Almost 20 years after it was conceived, the first 2,000 acres of the proposed 66,000-acre San Dieguito River Valley Regional Park will be opened to the public today.
"It's the last bastion against urbanization," said San Diego County Supervisor Susan Golding, chairwoman of the San Dieguito River Valley Regional Open Space Park Joint Powers Authority. "It's very unusual to be able to carve this out in the middle of an urban area."
Fourteen miles of hiking trails that cover 500 acres in the rugged San Pasqual Mountains blazed by members of the Urban Corps are the main feature of the first-phase opening of the park. Sixty to 70 Urban Corps members worked at the trails eight hours a day, five days a week for a year, Urban Corps Executive Director Sam Duran said. Using hand tools, shovels and chain saws, they cleared heavy undergrowth of manzanita and rocks.
A crew of naturalists will be on hand today at 9:30 a.m. to point out different birds and plant life along the San Dieguito River, and perhaps visitors will spy a raccoon or two among the sage on the hillsides, said Steve Perkins, an amateur naturalist from Escondido who will guide one of the tours. Hikers attending the opening should wear comfortable clothing, a hat and sturdy hiking shoes.
The trails, at an elevation of 600 feet, have both a northern and southern exposure offering a diverse assortment of plants and wildlife that can survive in freezing temperatures as well as sweltering heat.
Today's opening represents just a fraction of a proposed 55-mile wildlife and greenbelt preserve stretching from the beaches of Del Mar along the San Dieguito River, winding between the estates of Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch, and the bottom of Santa Fe Valley, across Lake Hodges and the San Pasqual Valley preserve, along Ramona and Santa Ysabel, and up the side of Volcan Mountain near Julian.
The drive for the preservation of wildlife areas in an ever-developing San Diego began in the 1970s with grass-roots campaigns by groups such as the League of Women Voters, the San Dieguito Planning Group and environmental organizations, said Diane Coombs, executive director of the San Dieguito River Valley Park Authority. The groups expressed fear that the river valley would be developed and the natural habitat of plants and animals destroyed, as has been the case in Mission Valley.
Five years ago, the San Diego City Parks and Recreation Department made a no-cost lease agreement for the 2,000-acre site with the Bureau of Land Management if the parks department provided the trails, deputy parks and recreation director Nancy Acevedo said. The Urban Corps was awarded a $194,000 contract to make the trails. Once the trails are approved, the department will apply for ownership of the land.
"San Diegans basically got the land for free," Acevedo said.
In December, 1990, the Joint Powers Authority purchased 89 acres of wetlands along the Del Mar Fairgrounds for $2 million. Southern California Edison has purchased 88 acres of wetlands on the east side of Interstate 5 for the park that it will restore and maintain for 20 to 30 years. The rest of the land is owned by private parties, the city water utility or the national forest, and it will take several years until the entire project is complete, Coombs said.
"Once the park is implemented . . . it will provide a wonderful opportunity for urban dwellers to hike, ride horses and bikes from the ocean to the mountains," Coombs said. "They can learn about the biology and natural history of the area as well as the cultural history."
Golding, who called hiking her "first love," said she hopes the opening of the park sends a message not only to developers but to the entire community that "open space is a top priority."
"This park and open space is not going to happen . . . without the consistent and enthusiastic support of the community. And we have received that so far."