Look carefully, from beneath the sprawling branches of a magnificent valley oak, and you can still see a couple 2x4s with nails poking through.
“There’s not much of it left,” Richard Sloan says wistfully.
In the summer of 1964, a 14-year-old Sloan and a couple friends built a three-story tree fort in these branches. Why this particular tree? Because it grew alongside the San Joaquin River.
“This was my big start on the river,” he says.
Sloan’s connection to the San Joaquin River began with that treehouse and 53 years later continues to flow through him. As founder of RiverTree Volunteers, a local nonprofit, Sloan spearheads river and public property cleanups, performs restoration projects and sponsors canoe trips, hikes and cross-country runs.
Whether traveling by canoe, on foot or driving between different properties in his SUV, it’s doubtful anyone spends more time on or near the river.
And what Sloan sees and encounters, almost on an everyday basis, has him deeply concerned. As it should concern anyone who wants more areas along the San Joaquin River open for public access.
In short, we’re letting our city’s greatest natural treasure get trashed. Mainly by doing next to nothing.
“For most people,” Sloan says, “the river is out of sight, out of mind.”
The homeless have just incredibly trashed the river. It’s just a huge huge problem.
Richard Sloan, founder of RiverTree Volunteers
Out of sight, out of mind. That pretty much sums Fresno’s association with the San Joaquin River.
You drive over it on Highways 41 and 99. You can see it from the Jensen River Ranch next to Woodward Park or a few golf course fairways. Or maybe you or one of your kids took one of those canoe trips.
The typical Fresnan’s relationship with California’s second-longest river, the waterway that forms the city’s northwest border, doesn’t run much deeper than that.
The relationship simply hasn’t been permitted to blossom.
Sloan is the exception. Growing up near Blackstone and Shaw, he’d pedal his bike several miles with lumber for the treehouse lying across his handlebars. Today, that tree is located on Sycamore Island Park, one of the San Joaquin River’s few public access points near Fresno. (In 1964, Sloan crossed the river on a bridge that’s no longer in existence. In 2017, one must drive an extra 8.5 miles into Madera County and around Valley Children’s Hospital.)
A 347-acre open space area with great fishing, trails for hiking and horseback riding and picnic areas, Sycamore Island Park works because it’s managed. Users pay a $9 per vehicle entrance fee (or purchase an annual pass for $85), and the money is used for maintenance and to ensure someone’s keeping an eye on things.
In too many other locations along the proposed San Joaquin Parkway, that isn’t the case. The land just sits in limbo. No one is keeping an eye on things. And when that happens, bad elements get free reign.
Litany of trouble
What bad elements am I talking about? Let’s start with the 11,000 tires that have been removed from the river by volunteer groups over the years. Yes, 11,000. It’s an astounding number. The vast majority have been tractor trailer tires, meaning there’s a company out there (or several) that treats the river as a personal dumping ground.
11,000 number of tires that have been removed from the San Joaquin River by volunteers
Not just tires, either. Just recently, a truck loaded with roofing materials drove down to the river bottom by making use of a toppled fence along the access road behind Palm and Nees avenues.
The driver dumped his payload, turned around and drove back out.
“No one reported it, as far as I know,” Sloan says.
More than dumping, the biggest problem Sloan sees these days is the increase in the homeless population.
We pass the remains of several campfires and endless piles of trash: plastic bags, discarded clothing and blankets and other assorted junk.
As we walk along the river he points out several camps hidden from plain sight, either actively used or abandoned. We pass the remains of several campfires (“This one wasn’t here the other day,” he says) and endless piles of trash: plastic bags, discarded clothing and blankets and other assorted junk.
It’s not just homeless trashing the place. Over the years more and more fishermen have been using the river. Many leave behind bait buckets, beer bottles and used tackle.
Why are people here such litterbugs? Having no trash cans is only part of the problem.
“I think it’s an educational thing,” Sloan says. He tells what has happened on two occasions while managing river cleanups with high school students: “They’re doing an excellent job. Just bending down and doing stuff like crazy.
“Then they pull a candy bar out of their pocket, take a bite and throw the wrapper behind them.”
All I can do is look to the future. But I can say the present condition is less than ideal.
Melinda Marks, San Joaquin River Conservancy executive director
For some people, leaving behind trash isn’t enough. They do deliberate environmental damage.
Sloan points out a spot on River West-Fresno where a fisherman, to create a shady spot alongside the river, dug a tunnel into an embankment that threatened to undercut one of the property’s main roads.
How to fix it
Why is this destruction allowed to happen? Because no one’s watching. No one’s managing these properties. Which gives the impression no one cares about what happens out there. Installing a bunch of “No Trespassing” signs with no teeth behind those words isn’t enough.
Urban planners have a term called “natural surveillance.” What this means is a person’s decision to do something criminal, or shady, is heavily influenced by the perceived risk of being caught.
In other words, the best deterrent to bad behavior is visibility and social interaction. The more a place is occupied, the more features and amenities in place, the less chance someone comes along and trashes the place with litter or graffiti.
It’s a big reason why Woodward Park looks pretty spiffy for a city park. And why some of the unmanaged areas along the San Joaquin River are rapidly becoming a blight.
As long as we do nothing, maintain the out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, the problem will only continue to get worse. We paid for these properties with our own tax dollars. Now we need to take charge of them.
Parkway stuck in park
This is the second in an occasional series on Fresno-area San Joaquin River issues. See the first, “Enough stalling. Now’s the time to improve recreation along San Joaquin River,” www.fresnobee.com/marek-warszawski