Sweeping views of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Peninsula Watershed and rolling green hills home to several endangered species are among the experiences those trekking on the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail can expect on one of the docent-led events offered on the 10-mile route.
Extending from trailheads at Skylawn Memorial Park in San Mateo to a terminus at Sneath Lane in San Bruno, the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail has offered a rare look at the commission’s watershed lands and the Crystal Springs, Pilarcitos and San Andreas reservoirs for 15 years.
But the public hasn’t always had access to the gravel service road and the educational opportunities that have accompanied the opening of the trail in 2003. Because of the trail’s proximity to a watershed holding nearly 30 billion gallons of drinking water, the effort to make it available to the public took years as officials developed a plan for protecting the water quality as well as endangered and native species that inhabit that stretch of the ridgeline, said John Fournet, community liaison for the SFPUC’s Natural Resources and Lands Management Division.
By limiting trail access to three days a week and to those who make reservations in advance to go with trained volunteer trail leaders, Fournet said officials were able to find a way to balance stewardship of the watershed and the benefits of giving the public access to the land.
‘This has always been something the community has wanted to do,” he said. “We were able to come up with a program that mitigated potential environmental impacts and it’s been great to work with our 300-plus volunteers and also great to have close to 20,000 participants to get out there.”
Fournet credited volunteers from a variety of stakeholder groups — including the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council, the Committee for Green Foothills, the California Native Plant Society and the Golden Gate Audubon Society, among others — in helping carry out managed access to the trail. He said fire is among the biggest threats associated with giving hikers access to the land, but with the help of hundreds of volunteers to monitor hikers as they enjoy the trail, they’ve been able to maintain the quality of the water and protect the state- and federally-endangered species such as the California red-legged frog, the San Francisco garter snake and the Mission blue butterfly.
“The trail leader volunteers are the living, breathing trail mitigation,” he said. “They’re the ones that actually allow us to do the program without impact.”
As the southern end of an 80-mile stretch of continuous ridgeline trail extending from Marin County, the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail establishes a critical connection in the Bay Area Ridge Trail, said Janet McBride, executive director of the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council. Extending as far north as Mount St. Helena and as far south as Gilroy, the Bay Area Ridge Trail will be a 550-mile loop around the Bay Area once complete, said McBride.
With the goal of connecting people with open space near where they live, several members of the council have been enthusiastic about volunteering as trail leaders for the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail, said McBride. She added the program the SFPUC developed with input from environmental and community groups to manage access to the watershed has served as a model for other sensitive environments, and commended the time-intensive effort to allow public access there.
“It was a very big deal, it was a hard-won effort,” she said, of the opening of the trail in 2003. “It’s definitely part of a beautiful, long [and] connected stretch.”
As one of the most sensitive environments and remote parts of the Peninsula Watershed, the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail and other parts of the watershed contain fewer invasive species than other open spaces in the county, making them a valuable resource for education programs, said Lennie Roberts with the Committee for Green Foothills. As an advocate for access to trails and parks in the county, Roberts acknowledged the SFPUC’s role in balancing multiple priorities for the land.
“I think people actually get a learning experience as well as a recreational experience, which is always a good thing,” she said.
Fournet expected the educational benefits of the trail to grow with a planned 6-mile extension to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Phleger Estate, which is currently undergoing environmental review. He said officials are in the process of developing a master interpretative plan for the property and implementing it on the existing and new trails once the extension is completed.
“It’s representative of that type of ecosystem on the coast, but it’s probably one of the more intact and least disturbed,” he said. “The experience of that area has been invaluable.”
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