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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes
SAN LUIS NWRC: "I Want to be Out There!"
Region 8, August 28, 2008
Conceptual map of new public trailhead and associated amenities at the San Joaquin River NWR. This area features a thematic interpretive native vegetation planting design and a free-exploration area for kids-and adults. (Graphic: USFWS) 
Conceptual map of new public trailhead and associated amenities at the San Joaquin River NWR. This area features a thematic interpretive native vegetation planting design and a free-exploration area for kids-and adults. (Graphic: USFWS)  - Photo Credit: n/a

by Kim Forrest, San Luis NWR Complex Refuge Manager
During a recent structured, well-orchestrated, and impeccably planned “event” on San Joaquin River NWR, we provided tours of the large-scale riparian woodland restoration of which we are so proud.  But apparently it wasn’t fully appreciated by all.  Assistant Refuge Manager Karl Stromayer’s four-year-old son had his face pressed against the van window, emphatically hollering, “I want to be out THERE!!!”

I think about that a lot.  I also think about Assistant Refuge Manager Rich Albers two young children buzzing through the trees along a slough at Merced NWR like a couple of scurrying shorebirds during our holiday party in the Refuge shop (they preferred the trees to the festivities inside).  I think about my own son’s outdoor, uh, “adventures”, when he was young.  But mostly I think about my own aimless outdoor ramblings a few decades ago -- whether they were in the spectacular backcountry of Yosemite or a weedy ditch home in suburbia.  I will never forget that huge bumblebee I saw dive down a hole in the ground, or the delicate “Chinese Lantern” flower I found – in that weedy ditch.

As refuge managers, we have a difficult job balancing all the competing recreational uses people desire on these postage stamps of habitat we call the National Wildlife Refuge System.  But I also have watched my son’s outdoor adventures morph into computer-animated “adventures”, with its very removed contact with the world, nature, and other kids.  We need to keep ‘em coming out to the refuges, including the next generations.

We just completed the Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the San Joaquin River NWR – a relatively new refuge with essentially no public use programs -- and we are planning public use programs that are focused on wildlife observation and trails.  With this “clean slate”, we can easily integrate some “Connecting People with Nature” philosophy; especially focused on young children.  When you put yourself in the shoes of a five-year-old, you sure can feel the chafing caused by restrictive, fearful (“Don’t set one foot off this trail or you’ll get a ticket!”), confined, regulated outdoor experiences.  Thinking about it, maybe I’d rather be in that weedy ditch than on a refuge…

It didn’t take any time at all for me to explain where I was going with this, when I tried to describe my thoughts to Outdoor Recreation Planner Jack Sparks and the restoration ecologist for our premiere restoration partner, River Partners, Dr. Stacy Small.  They both knew immediately what I was talking about – no doubt tapping into their own childhood memories.  They ran with it, and Stacy found it to be so different from her usual restoration planning tasks -- and so much more fun to design.

Our first major public use development on San Joaquin River NWR, therefore, is a seven-acre “free roam area” focused on families with young children.  It will be the focal point of our public use facilities, and the trailhead for a series of looping trails through the woods and wetlands.

Our first concern was to provide an area that parents felt their children would be safe in their ramblings, and the parents would be comfortable.  Thus, we clearly defined the area with an attractive split-rail fence, parking, and an electronic gate.  For comfort, we are providing a bathroom, picnic tables, and shade structures to fend off the intense Central Valley sun.  The area is overlooking our recently restored riparian woodland, and will have at least one interpretive kiosk. 

The “fun” part of the area will be meandering bands of “interpretive plantings” -- bands of vegetation with different “themes”.  For example, a band of blackberry and wild rose will have a small interpretive plaque describing it as the preferred habitat of the endangered riparian brush rabbit.  The interpretive message for a band of oak/elderberry savannah plants will describe their value for songbirds, woodpeckers, raptors, and the endangered valley elderberry longhorn beetle.  The plaque for a patch of sandbar willow will describe its value for migrating songbirds.  A band of berry shrubs will block the view from the adjacent road, and will provide habitat for sparrows, quail, and cottontail rabbits – easily viewed wildlife.  These bands of native vegetation are laid out in a somewhat meandering maze – to temp exploration and discovery.

All this cost approximately $175,000 – not easy money to come up with.  Most was internal FWS dollars, matched by some state grant funds garnered by River Partners.  Funding is always a challenge!

But anyway, I’m signing off – gotta get out of this office and go poke around in a riparian jungle somewhere… even if I have to borrow a five-year-old to have an “excuse”…

Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov