Work boots crunched over dried oak leaves, stepped over twisting branches and balanced down slippery slopes of wild grass as Bruce Bonifas discussed plans to make 103 acres of once-private woodlands in Atascadero open to the public.
The Atascadero Land Preservation Society bought the $780,000 parcel along Atascadero Creek off western Highway 41 from Davis Land Co. earlier this summer with state grants.
The plan is to cut two miles of trails and connections for hikers, equestrians and bicyclists and open the site within two years.
The group’s stewardship is meant to help preserve the oak forest, watershed and creek habitat over time.
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“We want a trail meandering through the blue oaks, gaining elevation,” society President Bonifas said.
The paths will provide a long-envisioned link through Eagle Ranch — an area mapped for residential growth and preservation of undeveloped land in the city’s master plan — and ultimately the Los Padres National Forest.
“Besides the opportunity for new recreation, people are excited for the connectivity through (these areas),” Bonifas said. “It’s a very unique thing for Atascadero.”
The site is called the Three Bridges Oak Preserve, marked by the trio of creek bridges nearby on Highway 41.
On a recent morning, Bonifas made his way over a raw footpath of cut vegetation and gestured to ideal areas for horse and walking paths.
The property opens with a meadow where the sun can shine through the mossy arms of towering sycamores.
Preservation society members think it’s the perfect spot for a picnic table or two. Additions would be minimal, Bonifas said, in order to keep the area natural as they steward the watershed.
The land stretches westward from there, transitioning from the creek’s riparian area with willows and fragrant bay trees to the midlands with native grasses and blue oaks. Then the land sprawls into twisting patches of dense chaparral.
Animal life is abundant. Wild ducks and fish can be spotted when the creek is full. Scrub jays, acorn woodpeckers, hawks, wild pigs and others are also around.
About 40 hours of labor has already been devoted to the site in planning, cutting and cleaning up. That’s in addition to the four years it took to secure the purchase.
The next step is mapping the area by foot to plan the trails — meaning Bonifas and other volunteers must crawl at times through thick patches of vegetation. They’ll cut back brush, remove roots and dig slopes by hand.
“Rather than run willy-nilly through, we’ll look for rock outcroppings, vista points and destinations,” Bonifas said.
Sites for trailheads with parking also need to be determined, as well as state regulation details.
“It’s kind of a game-changer for us,” Bonifas said, noting that the society’s land portfolio includes much smaller lots throughout town, such as at the entrance to Stadium Park.
If you want to help
To volunteer at the Three Bridges Oak Preserve with the Atascadero Land Preservation Society, visit www.supportalps.org.