What is environmentalism? Does the word encourage learning about the natural world, or is it more about not building on that vacant lot near my own home?
This issue is playing out again in that undeveloped area between Santa Cruz and Live Oak known as the Arana Gulch greenbelt. It’s a fascinating battle, one that pits environmentalists versus environmentalists—cycling advocates versus those opposed to any development there at all.
Center stage in the drama is the Santa Cruz Tarplant, a native species that’s part of the sunflower family. The inoffensive and endangered plant is the focus of a debate as to whether a bike path connecting Brommer Street to Broadway ought to be built.
Bikers, and those who favor alternative transportation, say that the tarplant can be protected and just look at how a bike path would encourage alternatives to the automobile. Those who are opposed say that the tarplant must be encouraged and that a bike path would do tremendous damage.
The Coastal Commission went against the recommendation of its own staff and put a hold on construction of the bike path. Commissioners said they’re sensitive to the concerns of the tarplant protectors, and they want more study indicating that there must be alternatives.
Sit down and read the Coastal Commission staff reports. Then read the arguments put forward by anti bike-pathers. You’ll come to this conclusion: this is not a tough one. Approve the damn path.
Here’s why. It’s NIMBYism. The not-in-my-backyarders are the ones citing the tarplant situation, and most of us know that what they really don’t want is more people coming through on their bikes. Do you really think that the majority of these folks were concerned about the tarplant until they discovered the political advantages of a federally designated endangered species?
Imagine, for example, if scientists discovered that extra traffic across the greenbelt would be good for the tarplant. Do you think local opponents would in turn welcome the increased traffic? Of course not.
The proposal for the bike-path project is more far-reaching and environmentally conscious than the opponents would have you believe. If, for example, there’s an environmentalist value on making the public more aware of Arana Gulch’s value, the proposed project makes tremendous sense.
It’s about more than a bike path. As the Coastal Commission staff points out in a recent report, “… one of the primary objectives of the proposed project is to maximize opportunities to educate, inform, and inspire users of the trail system so as to enhance their enjoyment of Arana Gulch and its resources, and possibly more importantly to encourage them to take action to help protect such resources here and elsewhere.”
Just about any outdoors person worth his hiking boots would agree with that assessment.
There’s a bigger issue, one that extends beyond Arana Gulch. The fight and the ensuing Coastal Commission delay only underscore the reputation of Santa Cruz as a place where nothing can get done. Why even try to start a project here when it’s bound to result in controversy, lawsuits and dithering by public officials?
Santa Cruz needs jobs. Santa Cruz needs an image upgrade—right now, it’s known for protests, delay and indecision. This Arana Gulch debate— to those on the outside—elicits a shake of the head, a wry smile and a well-honed comment: “There they go again in Santa Cruz.”
It gets worse. Environmental battles actually backfire when they become this silly. You can even take this point to a global scale—it’s partly why so much of the general public has trouble believing facts about climate change.
Too many self-styled conservationists have made specious complaints about possible damage to the environment. For years, too many people have warned about dire impacts that frankly haven’t really come true. The general public hears warnings about everything from ozone holes down to endangered tarplants or long-toe salamanders and they start thinking that these are all empty warnings.
Of course, they’re not all empty warnings, but it becomes difficult to distinguish between selfish, NIMBY arguments and true scientific research.
That’s why increasing public access to Arana Gulch is a good thing, despite what opponents say. A multi-use trail with such things as interpretive signs and maintenance to enhance the native plant environmental actually will do more to protect the land than just ignoring it.
It’s a shame that the debate has degenerated. Worse, it’s a shame that the Coastal Commission officials didn’t rely on their staff and instead caved in to the noise of those who want to keep people out of Arana Gulch.
Contact Tom Honig at firstname.lastname@example.org.