By Sara Gaiser | Bay City News Service
A proposal to further open to the public a large tract of Peninsula open space controlled by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission continues to meet with stiff opposition from environmental groups.
At a recent hearing before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Land Use and Transportation Committee, groups including the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and the Committee for Green Foothills spoke against a resolution urging the SFPUC to expand public access to trails in the Peninsula Watershed.
Public officials and recreation advocates have pushed for years for increased access to the watershed, a 23,000-acre open space area in San Mateo County that includes the Crystal Springs, San Andreas and Pilarcitos reservoirs. The area has been kept largely off limits in an effort to protect water quality and wildlife.
Currently, the public has access to the Crystal Springs Regional Trail on the eastern edge of the watershed, which is managed by the San Mateo County parks department, and can sign up for docent led walks on the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail within the watershed.
The SFPUC is now considering moving to a system that would allow unlimited trail access to hikers who paid for an annual permit, according to Tim Ramirez, manager of land management and natural resources for the commission. In addition, the agency is working on developing 11 miles of planned trails within the watershed, including a 6-mile extension of the Bay Ridge Trail.
"Development of an annual permit system will increase education and recreation opportunities," Mr. Ramirez said. "We're trying always to work to provide these opportunities for people in a way that is consistent with our goals for the watershed."
At the Sept. 12 hearing, proponents for increased access described the move as a matter of social justice and described efforts by environmental groups to limit access as "elitist."
However, environmental groups said social justice could be served by increasing partnerships with schools and groups in underserved areas, without endangering the watershed.
They warned that hikers would inevitably wander off trails, increasing erosion, harming protected wildlife and increasing the risk of a fire. More rangers and enforcement would be required, at an unknown cost.
"This is a protected watershed and a wildlife refuge," said Lennie Roberts of the Committee for Green Foothills. "It is not a park and it was never contemplated as a park."
"It would take only one match to turn this treasured place into a disaster zone," she said.
The resolution urging the SFPUC to expand public access was introduced by San Francisco supervisors John Avalos, Scott Wiener and David Campos earlier this year. It is nonbonding, and any final decision on access to the watershed will be made by the SFPUC.
Despite a bid by Mr. Avalos and Supervisor Aaron Peskin to hold the resolution over another week for further discussion with stakeholder groups, the committee voted 2-1 to forward the resolution to the full board for a vote on Sept. 27. Supervisors Wiener and Malia Cohen voted in support, with Mr. Peskin opposed.