Around five-dozen members of Take Back Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Mountain Bike Club, Friends of Pogonip and other community members met Sunday morning at the Club House at Pogonip armed with gloves, garbage bags, wheelbarrows, hoes and rakes.
They set off into the thickets to perform an all-day cleanup effort along the eastern boundary of Pogonip, which has been closed to public access since September 2009.
The cleanup is part of an ongoing project by the city's police and fire departments, parks and recreation department and a variety of community organizations to address the “fire hazard and ongoing public nuisance”—which, according to a document published by the parks and recreation department, was responsible for the area's closure.
“This is really the most beautiful part of the park," said the bike club president, Mark Davidson. "You'll see some huge bay trees and redwoods, and right now, the only people who get to see this amazing part of the park are the druggies."
Davidson's organization has conducted cleanup actions for four months as part of an ongoing project to create a new multi-use trail through the now-closed portion of Pogonip, right through the heart of the area now referred to as "Heroin Hill."
“We have been coming out for a few hours every Friday, and already we have been seeing a lot of improvement; we have seen less bad stuff really taking root,” said Davidson.
Analicia Cube, spokeswoman for Take Back Santa Cruz, sees the proposed new trail as a vital step in her organization's goal of making Santa Cruz a safer and cleaner place to live.
“There's a lot of reasons that I am pro-trail," she said. "Here we have 'Heroin Hill,' and I just want to send a message to the gang-bangers and the drug dealers and the kooks that we are going to come right through with a trail that the community is going to use. It's going to increase access, and the more use you have by responsible community members, the better off it's gonna be, and that's the bottom line.”
Pogonip has been a focus of Take Back Santa Cruz's efforts to whip the town into shape since the group was founded.
“About a year and a half ago," Cube said, "Take Back Santa Cruz started busting drug dealers up here, hiding in bushes and calling cops and things like that, 'cause you know, this is the biggest heroin distribution center in the state, possibly the country. As community members, we are just everyday folks, but we just had to do something about it."
Cube sees actions like Sunday's cleanup as a part of the much larger responsibility of each person in the community to create the kind of city they want to live in.
“City councils, police, all these people, they are just tools in our toolbox, as community members. We believe that it's our job to go out and help our community, because if we don't show them that we care, then who will?”
Not all people at the cleanup see eye to eye on the value of the proposed new trail, however.
Celia Scott, longtime member of the Friends of Pogonip and former mayor of Santa Cruz, is against the proposed trail.
“We believe there is an alternative trail that is already created and already in use,” she said, indicating the trail that runs alongside the Roaring Camp Railroad tracks. It is officially illegal to trespass along the tracks, but because bikers are prohibited in Pogonip, the trail serves as the main biker-friendly route from the levy in Santa Cruz to the university, Wilder Ranch and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
Scott would like to see this trail officially opened for public use, and the eastern border of Pogonip could remain as unspoiled open space, closed to public use.
“The Pogonip was formed as a natural reserve, to protect natural areas from development," Scott said. "Pogonip was all going to be developed at one point, you know. This all could have been houses and department stores, but it was set aside for its natural beauty. I think that is how the voters intended this area to be.”
Scott and her fellow Friends of Pogonip had garbage bags and gloves, and were ready to remove needles and other hazardous waste, just like everyone else present at the cleanup.
“We are definitely in line with the cleanup plan,” said Scott.
Analicia Cube was very much in favor of the new trail.
“I understand there is a very small opposition on this, and I understand they want it to remain open space," she said. "But you know, we are an urban community, in a lot of ways. If there wasn't this gang-drug thing going on, then maybe I wouldn't be so pro-trail. But it is, and it's a fact of life, and that's that.”
The Santa Cruz Mountain Bike Club is the driving force behind the creation of the new trail through Pogonip. Its members have worked in conjunction with several bike shops around town and have raised enough funds through raffles and donations to hire a professional trail designer to help plan the route the new trail will take.
“We think that this trail will be the best multi-use trail in the county, because it has been designed deliberately as a multi-use trail for recreation, whereas a lot of the trails have been put here through history with the strategy for extraction of resources," said Davidson.
"They don't have interesting features; they just want to get from A to B as fast as possible and extract the resources, whether it be lime or lumber, and then get the hell out of Dodge.”
Davidson said the city wants to work with his group, which has worked hard on the trail design.
"We have designed it using sustainable trail-building techniques, which will last for decades if not centuries," he said, "because we have been using strategies that will minimize erosion and water damage.”
The actual construction of the trail will have to wait for approval by the Santa Cruz City Council, and as of yet, there is no date set for such a decision to be made. Until then, the cleanups will go on.
For now, all that exists of the new trail is a hopeful line of pink flags that runs among the trees and piles of trash of the Pogonip forest.