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Early History

In the late 1940's, Mr. Elmer Aldrich joined the State Parks as Conservation Supervisor.  He said that a renowned planner and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., had been hired to conduct studies to help guide the direction for State Parks for the post-war period.  Elmer and others attended meetings with Mr. Olmsted and learned that he already had emphasized the importance of some kind of protection, including a parkway for the "Sacramento River and its Tributaries."  Olmsted Jr., is the son of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., the designer of Central Park of New York.  Also at that time, those connected with State Parks, in looking to the future, studied a number of early proposals for protection of the American River.  Some of those proposals dated back as far as 1915, when John Nolen, a Town Planner, outlined, in general, the possibility of a parkway.  A search was made for all previous proposals for the protection of the Sacramento and American Rivers.

This was a period when State Parks was under great public and political pressure to do something to stem the burgeoning demand for outdoor recreation.  As usual, this type of demand brings on the nightmare of all park administrators whose parks include some beautiful natural scenery.

The critical question was, "How can you achieve the best acceptable balance when every proposed recreation development removes some of the natural values?"  You can always remove or replace unwanted developed facilities, but it may take 100 years to restore the original natural scene!

As in the American River Parkway, this conflict was rampant as late as in the 2006 Parkway Plan.  During the earlier period, State Parks wisely decided to initially put its resources into acquisition of desirable areas such as Coast, Desert, Redwoods and Sierra that were threatened with rapidly advancing urbanization.

Bond Acts were achieved to accomplish much of these, with some of the funds allotted to local projects.  State Parks opposed taking over Folsom Lake, and felt that it was a Federal Project and should be operated by them.  The final decision was decided politically.

In the late forties and early fifties, there was growing public pressure for more outdoor recreation which precipitated a counter movement to preserve natural areas.  As this conflict grew, no agency of government stepped forward to take on the responsibility.  State Parks leaned toward acquiring areas of natural and historic importance and leaving the more urban, high density, regional type recreation to the responsibility of local governments.  Some of those connected with State Parks were dismayed that the care for the American River was "falling through the cracks" among levels of government.

Elmer became active in the newly formed chapters of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.  There he found groups of people with equal concern for the river.  After a number of informal meetings, it was decided to organize, to seek an agency to assume the responsibility for accomplishing a Parkway.  To do this in 1950, "The River Recreation and Parks Association" (TRRPA)

The objectives were bigger than just the American River, and park status was sought along the Sacramento River as well.  Because the users of a Parkway would go beyond county boundaries, it was felt that responsibility should be multi-county in nature.  The group explored the highly successful multi-county East Bay Regional District, and their Chairman worked with The River Recreation and Parks Association to develop a strategy for a special district.

Finally, with the help of an attorney, they presented their proposal to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.  Elmer said the Supervisors were very complimentary and agreed that something should be done, but they flatly rejected the idea of a special district!  The Board of Supervisors then directed the efforts of The River Recreation and Parks Association to the Planning Department, asking it to come up with steps to accomplish the goals of TRRPA, who then made the same presentation to the Sacramento City Council with the same results, but who agreed to discuss the proposal with the County.

Elmer said that TRRPA continued to follow the County's progress in establishing the Parkway, and "we gave up the idea of a special district because we had assurances that things were moving in the right direction.  We were pleased that the County finally agreed to form the Parkway and other organizations came along to assure its protection!  Dominant in this effort were Staff members of State Parks, Audubon, Sierra Club, and SARA."


by Elmer Aldrich

(This article was originally printed in "The Observer" in the March 1952 issue of the Audubon Society publication)

Persons in the Sacramento region interested in natural things are particularly fortunate. A few short Sunday miles to the east lies the great Sierra with its vertically arranged zones of plant and animal life. Between the Pacific and the Sacramento are the rolling Coast Ranges, adorned biologically much differently than the Sierra. Though both ranges differ widely, they share something in common -- in each there is at least part which remains in its original native state.

North and South of Sacramento lies a picture more altered in nature. The most that remains of the original scene is a broken and thread-like line of vegetation of the native type bordering the major river courses. Superb agricultural characteristics of this region have taken unmitigated precedence over preservation of natural values.

In California, since the war, there has been more pressure levied on the factors making up the landscape. This has manifested itself in many aspects such as: tremendous pressure upon wildlife through increased numbers of hunters and fishermen; improved and expanded agricultural and logging methods; and an alarming tourist trade. It is the tourist, and those that seek outdoor recreation, that can either be one of the best or worst influences in preserving a few remaining bits of California's native landscape for those who are truly interested in natural things.

Organizations such as the Audubon Society have done much to help in the preservation of natural areas, on a national scale. A lot of this has been done by their staunch support of governmental agencies and other conservation groups that are set up to administer such areas.

We have in the Sacramento region a perfect stage setting for a conservation project of note. Sacramento at the Apex of two great river courses is perhaps the only city of its size in the country that has not developed them into parks or at least made them available for public use.

Approximately six months ago a civic-minded handful of citizens met in the County Court House and decided to do something about making plans for developing natural type parks along the rivers. This group, now known as The River Recreation and Parks Association, is soliciting support from all local clubs and civic groups. Briefly their three-point program is this:

  1. Promote development of areas along the rivers in city ownership.
  2. Promote the acquisition and development of river recreation areas by the State, and
  3. Promote the establishment of a Regional Park District.

    This enterprising group has roughly selected its territory as lying along the Sacramento River from Verona to Rio Vista and along the American River from Folsom Dam to the mouth. The Association's basic desire is to see an integrated park system covering this area with developments connected by a parkway, a scenic drive.

    One of the first moves of the group was by resolution to ask the State Park Commission to conduct a survey in this vicinity indicating areas desirable for inclusion in the State Park System. The new planning unit of the State Division of Beaches and Parks has made progress in this regard.

    A report will soon be completed, and probably will recommend acquisition of considerable frontage north of Sacramento and an area along the American.

    $200,000 has been allocated form the State Park Fund for purchase of areas on the Sacramento, American and Feather River drainages. Each dollar spent by the State must be matched by a dollar or land of equal value from other sources. This principle make mandatory the interest in the project by the local people.

    The creation of a Regional Park District requires 5000 signatures to place the item on the ballot and a successful vote of the people. This District, if established, will provide, through a very nominal tax rate, the money to protect and develop attractive areas situated between the State and City owned property, and would be responsible for the parkway.

    The all important District will need the full support of local organizations in obtaining signatures and in publicizing the project to insure its success on the ballot.

    To those who think that this type of development is an idle dream, they need to turn only as far as the San Francisco Bay area. There they will find a beautiful Regional Park System featuring the full gamut of outdoor recreation: hiking, riding, camping, picnicking, boating, swimming, scenic driving and interpretation of natural history.

    Bob Sibley, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the East Bay Regional Park District feels that Sacramento is a "natural" for a similar project. Think what a boost it would be to the schools and to all interested in nature study to have access to much of the river frontage!

    This crusade will not be a new idea -- it has been thought of many times. Waiting, however, makes it increasingly difficult to accomplish the purpose. In the last few years residential subdividing of the cream of the river frontage is a real threat towards ever securing an integrated park system for public enjoyment. The River Recreation and Parks Association has no pride of authorship on this project -- on the contrary, it seeks to spur on other organizations and individuals to bend every effort toward the common goal. It can't be won otherwise.