Where Father Serra camped and John Montgomery flew...

July 29, 2004

In an era when urbanization continues to press inexorably on, gobbling up vacant parcels and spitting out the byproducts of too much growth too fast, it's comforting to realize and acknowledge the serious efforts to preserve greenbelts for generations to come.

One such effort, 14 years in the making, is piecing together for public use and protection a greenbelt that cuts through America's seventh-fastest-growing city, Chula Vista.

It is an effort that involves three government entities, teaming up to buy land only from willing sellers in order to preserve habitat and provide recreation uses, both passive and active.

Such is the Otay Valley Regional Park, which stretches 9 miles from San Diego Bay salt flats west of Interstate 5 and follows the Otay River's valley to Lower Otay Reservoir, where it links with other public lands.

The park is a joint powers agreement involving the county of San Diego as lead agency and the cities of Chula Vista and San Diego. Money for land purchases comes from state bond issues for parks and for watershed preservation.

Indians roamed this land for 9,000 years. Lithic artifact scatters still remain. Father Junipero Serra set up his first camp here, en route north to establish a string of missions just as America was being born. Pioneers and wine makers followed. Commercial salt production at the western end began in the 1850s. John Joseph Montgomery, the first American to leave the ground on wings of his own design, flew 600 feet from an Otay Mesa slope in 1884.

Today, the western end of the valley is facing urban encroachment, the eastern end is still open although impacted in places by mining or agriculture. Still, dozens of bird varieties, plants, from the common natives to the endangered, can be found here. The Western meadowlark is abundant here. So are Anna's hummingbird, and, in season, the migratory great blue heron. Three types of frogs live here. So do raccoons and rabbits. From time to time, deer, bobcats and coyotes have been sighted.

Despite its formation in 1990, the regional park is still in its land-acquisition phase. Recent purchases of 192 acres have brought the land acquired and dedicated by the three agencies to about 700 acres. About 55 percent of the total 8,000 acres already was in the public domain.

"We wanted to provide a large-scale regional park but also answer local recreational needs," explained Cory Linder, chief of the open space division of the county Parks and Recreation Department. "We wanted to preserve cultural as well as environmentally sensitive areas and protect the watershed."

In the next phase, park authorities will concentrate on opening the land to appropriate public uses. A staging area, or visitor center, complete with parking, kiosks, picnic tables and interpretive trail tours is contemplated. So are viewpoint and overlook areas and mini-interpretive centers. One overlook, next to Finney Elementary School in Chula Vista, is planned to also accommodate school uses with a shade awning in the form of John Montgomery's wing. Trails will be developed on publicly owned portions.

Facilities for active recreational uses already exist and more are planned. Coors Amphitheatre sits within the boundaries. Forty acres of playing fields are being developed in the northwest corner, between I-5 and the salt flats.

More remains to be done, and the public can help. One way is to refrain from dumping trash and reporting violators. Another is to assist the Friends of Otay Valley Regional Park, which has planted 500 native trees. Adjacent property owners contemplating a sale should inquire about the acquisition program funds are available. Bequests, of course, are accepted.

Government exists to accomplish what we as individuals cannot do ourselves, to take on tasks that the free-enterprise system has no direct economic incentives to do. Those affiliated with this effort should be proud government representatives and planners, citizen volunteers, the large advisory committee and the willing property sellers.

Greenbelts such as the 9-mile-long Otay Valley Regional Park are especially important. Wild creatures, particularly the carnivores, need large areas of connectivity, not isolated parcels, to thrive. Endangered plants such as the Otay tarplant or the San Diego Mesa vernal pools and their specialized plant habitats well, once they are gone, they are gone forever. Children and adults can gain understanding about their past from interpretive tours. And humans need places to get away from it all, especially in the middle of America's seventh-fastest-growing city.