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Recreation and Healthy Communities

From Highlights from A Conservation Blueprint

We connect with nature every time we breathe or drink water or simply look at the beauty that surrounds us. In Santa Cruz County we have abundant opportunities to get out in nature, to experience its wonder and relax in its embrace. Over a quarter of the county’s protected landscape is open to public access, providing an array of opportunities for healthy recreation and environmental education . This wealth of natural recreation draws millions of visitors to the county each year, making tourism a critical part of our local economy.

The Conservation Blueprint brought together leaders from the parks, recreation, and outdoor education communities to identify challenges they face as they maintain the county’s bounty of facilities and programs. Mostly they talked about the challenge of funding basic operating costs. In recent years facilities have been closed, hours shortened, and basic maintenance repeatedly cut. Looking ahead, these recreation and education leaders see growing demand as the county’s population increases.

In addition, the county’s wealth of recreational opportunities is not evenly distributed. The City of Santa Cruz has almost 6,000 acres of parks, greenbelt and watershed lands and is close to Wilder State Park and the UCSC Natural Reserve. Watsonville has less than 1,000 acres of parks and Capitola just 41 acres. All communities face challenges providing safe and convenient access between schools, neighborhoods, and parks – a key component of healthy lifestyles for children. And the county’s array of nature centers and educational programs struggle to meet the need to teach future generations about nature.

Nature Education
Santa Cruz County’s rich and diverse natural habitats provide a wealth of recreational and educational opportunities. School children have a variety of opportunities to learn on the ground about the world around them. The Fitz Wetlands Center at Pajaro Valley High School, the San Lorenzo Watershed Academy, and Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History are three examples of such innovative programs. The Blueprint recommends increased support for such programs and the use of conserved lands as outdoor classrooms.

Watsonville Wetlands Watch already works on the Land Trust’s Watsonville Slough Farms, involving the students of Pajaro Valley High School in stewardship and restoration projects. The Museum of Natural History in Santa Cruz has initiated an innovative educational program on the Land Trust’s Morgan Sandhills Preserve.

Trails are one key way people get in touch with the natural world. The Blueprint broadly identifies opportunities to increase the county’s trail system, including the

  • The City of Watsonville’s Parks Master Plan, which proposes adding 15 miles of trails within the city and nearly 20 miles outside the city.
  • The Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail would link existing trail segments into a continuous coastal trail around the Monterey Bay.
  • The California Coastal Trail would span the coast of California. Seven miles of Santa Cruz County’s 43 mile section of this trail has been completed.
  • The Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line runs 32 miles from Davenport to Watsonville and is anticipated to include pedestrian and bicycle access.
  • The Bay Area Ridge Trail is a 550-mile trail that will encircle the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of the trail is already open and there are opportunities for trail connections from Santa Cruz County.

Some landowners are concerned about trails on or near their property. The Blueprint does not identify any property-specific trails and supports potential trails only on public lands or where landowner permission has been secured.

Funding and Partnerships
Without a secure source of funding for ongoing operations and maintenance, most park managers and environmental educators believe there is no way to sustain existing facilities and programs. In the short term, conservation organizations must work to ensure that future state bond measures continue to include funding for protecting natural resources in Santa Cruz County. Park agencies and nonprofit organizations also need to coordinate efforts to identify sustainable funding sources for long-term stewardship and maintenance of parks and protected lands.


More about the Conservation Blueprint