Commuters on Interstate Highway 280 see it to the west every day. Rolling green hills carpeted with trees, stunning cloud formations along the ridge line, and down below, sparkling blue reservoirs. This green stretches all the way from Pacifica to Highway 84. First you ask, “What IS that?” Then you ask, “How do I get IN there?”
It's a watershed for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and most of it is not open to the public.
San Francisco Supervisors, led by Supervisor John Avalos, have started talking about expanding access to more trails. The agenda item, which is not expected to lead to an immediate vote, comes at the prompting of a group called Open the SF Watershed.
There are 31 miles of public trails between Highway 280 and the reservoirs. The Crystal Springs Regional Trail system is paved and popular -- 325,000 people visit a year. But Open the SF Watershed wants more, as group member Charlie Krenz explains.
"The watershed is massive," Krenz says. "It’s 23,000 acres. It’s really the heart of the Northern Peninsula’s wilderness area.
He's put together a video with helpful visuals about what Open the SF Watershed wants to see happen.
He wants the land west of the reservoirs opened to hikers, bikers and equestrians.
"For hiking, it’s going to be beautiful, but it also lends itself to mountain biking because it’s so big," Krenz says. "People will definitely hike it, but the distances really lend themselves to mountain bikes."
He adds, "It’s one of the most spectacular coastlines that exists."
Brian Coyne agrees. He writes about mountain biking for the San Francisco Chronicle. One of Coyne’s headlines last year: “The Best Bay Area bike trails you’re not allowed to ride.”
Coyne insists, "For public land, there should be a presumption in favor of public access," adding there are already established trails and roads on the land in question. "We’re not requesting that any new trails or roads be built. It’s all already there. So really it’s a matter of just physically opening the gates."
Well, it’s not exactly that simple. Tim Ramirez manages the Crystal Springs watershed for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. He says the public has no idea of the complex of bureaucracies operating behind those gates.
"They just look at hiking trails," Ramirez says. "They look at where the trail goes. They don’t look at who owns the land."
It’s not just the PUC that regulates the watershed. So do agencies at every level: city, county, state and federal. It's even part of the UNESCO Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve. A lot of protected plants and animals call this place home, including the marbled murrelet, the fountain thistle and Marin Dwarf Flax. Ramirez says nothing happens here without a lot of conversation. "All these folks are going to have an opportunity to say, 'Yes, it’s fine,' or 'No, it’s not,' or 'These are the conditions under which you may.'"
Ramirez says the PUC actually has a 15-year-old plan in place to expand public access. By the end of next year, he hopes to provide unrestricted access to the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail, which runs parallel to the Crystal Springs Trail, but is only available to see with a docent. Thanks to a $1 million grant from the California Coastal Conservancy, Ramirez hopes to begin work next year on a new six-mile trail from Highway 92 to the redwood groves of Phleger Estate, a Golden Gate National Recreation Area property north of Woodside.
The folks with Open the SF Watershed would prefer the peninsula follow the wide-open access model of the Marin Municipal Water District. Most of Marin’s 22,000 acres are open. 1.8 million people visit each year.
But other utilities are more conservative. Like the East Bay Municipal Utility District. EBMUD Watershed manager Scott Hill gets 50,000 visitors a year and they all have to apply for permits. "I don’t think that it’s appropriate to open up all areas of the watershed to public access."
Hill says inviting more people in boosts all kinds of risks: fires, poaching, disturbing sensitive habitat and more. Those concerns are shared by the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Committee for Green Foothills. Lennie Roberts of the committee sees no reason to change the status quo on the Peninsula.
"We have a lot of trails already," Roberts says. "I think it would be great if the PUC expanded the docent program [on the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail] to seven days a week."
Despite Hill’s reservations, he sees a big benefit to public access, too. People who get to enjoy the watershed want to protect it.
"You do develop this constituency that has a proprietary attitude in the watershed and a sense of stewardship," Hill says.
When Bay Area utilities started buying up land decades ago, open space was everywhere. Now, the watersheds are some of the biggest islands of green in the region -- visual relief in a sea of concrete and steel as the peninsula becomes more crowded.