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Volunteers Transform Illegal Encampments into Welcoming Public Places

With wildfires and smoke threatening the north state and beyond, it’s easy to forget the natural wonders in the middle of Redding. Those of us who’ve meandered our river rrails recognize these as crown jewels.

Among these is the land on the north and south sides of the Diestelhorst Bridge. Many have enjoyed its paved paths, but few know the hidden trails of what’s called Lower Diestelhorst Open Space – the long-overgrown area between the Union Pacific Railroad trestle and the Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District (A.C.I.D.) intake.

Dr. Randy Smith, Redding’s champion of open spaces, does. For years, he has voluntarily spearheaded clean-up efforts to keep open spaces passable for all to enjoy.

The City of Redding has owned Lower Diestelhorst and the surrounding property since the late 1970s. The eastern and western portions were purchased from descendants of the Diestelhorst family, who had owned it since 1858. Originally prime farm land, the property boasted a producing orchard and vineyard for more than 100 years. The now-defunct Auto Camp replaced these.

Cattle once grazed on the Lower Diestelhorst property. When they were removed, the grass and everything down to the river side of the access road was overrun by blackberry and impenetrable weeds.

Community Work Program Officer Bob Brannon has worked for the City of Redding for 27 years. He and Lieutenant Davison have been running inmate work crews for years.

“Open spaces are public property,” said Brannon. “At one time we had a lot of people using (Diestelhorst).”

Then the area got overgrown, encouraging illegal camping along the river.

For years, parolees encamped at Diestelhorst, especially where blackberry grew, was 8 feet tall. This would get cleared out, then become overgrown again. When transients moved back, vandalism and huge amounts of trash and debris followed. Recently Brannon and his team removed 4,000 pounds of litter from the south side; baby clothes, syringes, diapers, shopping carts and more.

A.C.I.D. District Project Manager and Operation Supervisor Scott Passmore said he got involved because he wanted to get rid of the transient problem.

“We’re hoping to keep it clean,” he said. He and his team are working on fire reduction and getting rid of the garbage transients leave behind. He said they’re also putting law enforcement pressure on campers.

Transients near the A.C.I.D. facility will be arrested on sight.

Diestelhorst is getting some much needed TLC.

In early March, City Projects, comprised of 60 international Bethel Church students, helped with the Lower Diestelhorst recovery. On May 4, a controlled burn – coordinated with Redding Fire Department, CalFire and inmates from Sugar Pine – removed about 40 acres of invasive, non-native Himalayan blackberry.

Photos by Dr. Randall Smith.

Once all is cleared, Smith says that the areas he calls the Ghost Forest – a burned area that had featured tall cottonwood trees and overgrown blackberry – and the “Passmore Forest” (the area closest to the A.C.I.D. intake) will be fixed all the way to the river, with the whole embankment covered in pasture grasses and wildflowers.

A Fremont cottonwood killed two years ago in a revenge fire set by illegal campers who were angry at each other. That June 18, 2015, fire killed six of these wonders, crossed the river and set the railroad on fire atop the trestle.

According to Smith, after 23 donated sessions over six months, things are better.

“One reason for the imperative nature of this campaign is to stop the illegal camping along the river, close to the Community Garden and Redding’s prized trail system,” he said.

Other serious hazards threaten this beautiful area.

In June of 2015, transients set the “Revenge Fire”. Embers ignited the railroad across the river above Lake Redding Park.

Unfortunately, firefighters couldn’t get water to the top of the trestle: the distance to the ground from the railroad ties was 110 feet, but the fire department’s longest ladder was 10 feet shorter. A Union Pacific water tender was called to douse the trestle top.

Before.

After..

“It was almost a disaster for the railroad,” Smith said.

According to a witness, the hot fire showered sparks through the trees. The intensity of the blackberry underneath made it like a Roman candle.

“Had we had a north wind that day, the fire would have gone across the meadow, onto California Street and into homes before any alarms (could have gone off),” Smith said. “The entire downtown of Redding would have been destroyed.”

With so much overgrown vegetation, Smith says the level of risk is high. “Open spaces around Redding are live bombs waiting to go off,” he said.

Earlier this summer, the access road right-of-way between Benton Drive Bridge and North Market Street Bridge had 10-foot high Himalayan blackberry on both sides. After Smith sprayed it with a special herbicide, Passmore’s crew took down the treated and dead blackberry, collected it and made burn piles to extend right-of-way clearance to the power plant. These piles – along the south border of the historic Diestelhorst Ranch – will likely be burned during the Community Clean-up on October 7.

Prior to the collection, the 80 acres between Benton Drive Bridge and North Market Street Bridge – except for the access road – was, said Smith, “a completely inaccessible tangle and supreme fire danger on some of the most historic and beautiful land in Redding,”

As the property was cleared, long-hidden artifacts came to light. A crumbled aluminum extension ladder, buried in the 12-foot-tall Himalayan blackberry, now “lies among the ashes like wrinkled crepe paper on the floor of a New Year’s dance floor,” said Smith.

Brannon, Smith and Passmore agree people shouldn’t be afraid to use Diestelhorst area, or any of Redding’s open spaces.

Smith says that the more greater numbers of the public use these open spaces, the more their presence will drive out illegal camping. He says the Diestelhorst area is ideal for a variety of activities, whether it’s a place to play catch or play Frisbee, or just enjoy the difference between the north and south sides of the river. One is sunny, one has shade.

Best of all, says Smith, you don’t have to go that far, because it’s smack in the middle of town.

Passmore said the effort is worthwhile. “We’re working for a better community; to have a decent place to work and live in,” he said.

“This is money well spent.”

Smith agreed.

“This is the quickest recovery of valuable, large-scale riparian habitat and open space in city history,” Smith said.

“In a little over a hundred days since May 4, this forgotten and impassible place has come far enough to join Henderson Open Space, River Bend, Turtle Bay East, Riverfront Park, Diestelhorst Auto Camp, Riverland, and miles of north and south Sacramento River Trails as premier public areas along the River for all to enjoy.”

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UPDATE/CLARIFICATION FROM RANDY SMITH REGARDING THE FUNDS SPENT TO CLEAN UP THESE OPEN SPACES: 

The $400,000 spent in the last two years was state grant money spent at Henderson Open Space.

Lower Diestelhorst Open Space has cost the taxpayer nothing except the already allocated fire fighter salaries of 4 May.

A. C. I. D. paid for Sugar Pine workers.

Also, disposal of the many debris piles will occur when permitted after November. That finish work will be performed by volunteer CiTy Projects — Bethel students — not Community Creek Clean Up.