The San Diego Chapter worked with residents to oppose the road construction. They conducted naturalist-guided canyon tours to teach neighbors about canyon habitats and threats to them. They established new “friends groups” for Switzer and other canyons, and together they convinced the city to establish a task force to study how to minimize the impact of access roads on canyons. The City Council adopted the task force’s recommendations.
But that was just the beginning.
The chapter realized that a friends group was an effective method of organizing communities to protect nearby open spaces. “We went from canyon to canyon and built dozens of friends groups,” Bowlby says. Thirty-two, at last count. Each independent group may face a variety of issues, from stopping development to restoring native species to picking up the garbage that flows down streams or is dumped into canyons.
“It’s all growing organically now,” says Bowlby. “We are sought out by people living near a canyon who want to create a friends group. Sometimes there’s a catalyst, such as a threat to their canyon.”One such threat is a proposed cut-and-fill commuter road and bridge through Rose Canyon in the University City neighborhood. The canyon runs from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in the east to Mission Bay in the west, a key part of the only greenbelt that stretches across San Diego. The project would slice the canyon at its widest point, where it is quietest and most scenic. “You couldn’t conceive of a more devastating location for this project,” says Debby Knight, who helped found the Friends of Rose Canyon in 2002. Rose Canyon has some conservation protections—it is one of eight undeveloped open space parks in the city (Knight calls them “havens for nature”) and is cited in the city’s multiple species conservation program (volunteers have counted 100 species of birds in or near the canyon). But the proposed construction would override those protections.
Plans for this project are decades old and have been beaten back in the past. But Knight says there is political pressure for the bridge’s construction, even though the city’s own studies have shown it would do relatively little to improve traffic. University City’s own local planning group—an elected body that advises the city on local land-use issues—once supported the project.
Knight emphasizes that “they’re not making this open space canyon land in the city of San Diego anymore.”
When Knight and other volunteers reached out to neighbors, they discovered that some people who had lived near the canyon for decades had never ventured in. They also discovered enormous opposition to the project. Now, the friends group takes hundreds of people on guided tours each year. Knight says the group currently has more than 1,500 members. And they encouraged individuals concerned about the canyon to run for seats on the local planning group, a majority of which now supports preservation and opposes the project. In addition, Knight says, “I take a lot of elected officials or their staff to the canyon. I want them to see it. Because if they don’t see it, they don’t know it’s there. It’s easy to look at a map and say, ‘Oh, that dotted line, it’s a good idea to have a road there.’”
Knight realizes there is more to protecting Rose Canyon than stopping the bridge project, such as preserving its watershed, restoring native plants, and developing educational and recreational programs. “If the bridge issue were resolved, we have a long agenda of other opportunities that are all positive,” she says. But, she adds, blocking the bridge is their first task.
Of the Sierra Club’s role, Bowlby says, “We give the friends groups a headstart in organizing themselves. The next thing you know, they’re getting $155,000 grants to do restoration [like the Friends of 32nd Street Canyon] or building their friends group to 1,500 people.”
Bowlby sees the campaign strengthening communities: “People in a neighborhood who have never even said hello to each other are suddenly becoming friends and working together for a common cause—the preservation and restoration of their neighborhood canyon. So we’re building environmental community in a real sense.”
Knight’s experience proves Bowlby’s point. On one side of Rose Canyon is a community of single-family homes; on the other are high-density, multi-family units. The two sides have historically had little interaction, but working together to stop the bridge has united them.
Bowlby is willing to try the friends group model anywhere. “Until you actually reach out and bring people together in a given community,” he says, “you don’t know what kind of environmental community you might be able to build there.” In the process, friends group volunteers have become effective advocates for open space. “Like Minutemen,” Bowlby says, “they can come to the call.”
Knight also sees opportunity rising from the threat to her neighborhood canyon: “When you see what you stand to lose, then you learn to love it. If we’d never had to fight to protect this place, a lot fewer people would even know about it.”
And whatever happened to the Friends of Switzer Canyon, the first group? It’s going strong after five years, with monthly activities. “It has great leadership,” says Bowlby, “and a great restoration plan that they’re implementing.”
For more information, visit sandiego.sierraclub.org/canyons
Photo by Deborah Knight
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