A Tale of Two Rivers

A unique division of the National Park Service is connecting residents to trails and waterways where they live, from Atlanta’s Chattahoochee River to the Los Angeles River.


By Scott Kirkwood


The Los Angeles River has appeared in more than a dozen major films and television shows, from “Chinatown” to “Terminator 2,” but in most cases cars—not kayakers—are navigating the nearly empty river bottom, which is covered in concrete.

“Los Angeles has a Mediterranean climate, which means we have long, dry summers and short, wet winters, so when it rains, it pours,” says Anne Dove, a planner with the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program, a division of the Park Service that connects people to outdoor experiences. “Historically, when that happened, the L.A. River shifted a lot, and even broke its banks. Back in the 1930s, a really devastating flood event caused a lot of damage, wiping out entire neighborhoods, so the river was channelized in concrete, to lock it in place and move a whole lot of water out to the ocean as fast as possible.” As you would imagine, that move sacrificed the natural resource that flowed through the heart of the city. A concrete channel doesn’t quite call to mind the romantic image of Huck Finn setting out on a journey. Most L.A. residents quickly forgot there was a river at all.

Things started to change in the late 1980s, when writer and activist Lewis MacAdams and Friends of the Los Angeles River started reminding people that the waterway was a natural resource that once played a vital role in the community—and could do so again.

In 1990, Mayor Tom Bradley and the City of Los Angeles convened a task force to address opportunities around the river. The Park Service got involved early on in the process, working with the County of Los Angeles to help facilitate the Los Angeles River Master Plan. More recently, the city government teamed up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the feasibility of removing some of that concrete and restoring the landscape to a more natural setting.

Although Park Service staff on such urban projects don’t typically don green and gray uniforms, they do help people find their way to natural areas in a more figurative sense. The national network of nearly 100 professionals scattered throughout the country partners with community groups, nonprofits, tribes, and state and local governments to design trails and parks, improve access to rivers, conserve natural and cultural resources, and create recreational opportunities for all Americans—especially the ones who can’t get out to Yosemite and Yellowstone.

In cities like Los Angeles, making a trail requires a lot more than a little dirt, a few saplings, and a couple of shovels.

“Urban areas can be really complex in terms of stakeholders, land ownership, property easements, and regulatory overlays—putting in something as simple as a trail can require quite extensive coordination,” says Dove. In fact, the mission of one government agency may contradict the mission of others that need to sign off. For example, the L.A. County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers historically focus on flood management and infrastructure, and L.A.’s Department of Water and Power may reserve the right to construct a power line on a given site, because the agency is more focused on conveying electricity than providing outdoor recreation. In the face of the bureaucracy, a neighborhood group that wants to carve a 500-yard trail to the river may not stand a chance. 

That’s where the Park Service brings its expertise, connecting interested groups, leveraging funding from other sources, and, in some cases, just offering the effort more legitimacy.

“Our program really represents a 21st-century approach to conservation,” says Bob Ratcliffe, chief of conservation and outdoor recreation programs. “Park Service Director Jon Jarvis put it best when he said, ‘Our first century was about bringing people to the parks, and our second century will be about bringing the parks to the people.’ We probably won’t see a lot more large national parks being created, like we did 50 years ago, so the expanded role of the National Park Service is evolving to help communities create special places in their own backyards.”

The approach emerged from the environmental thinking that dominated the 1960s, prompting Congress to pass the Outdoor Recreation Act, which charged the federal government with providing high-quality outdoor recreation opportunities for Americans in perpetuity. The Park Service now fills that role, offering expertise on roughly 350 projects each year ranging from day-long paddling events that connect people to local river resources to sprawling trail and greenway projects.

In L.A., Park Service staff helped locals identify potential pathways that would connect bikers and pedestrians to the river and other key destinations within the region. They’re also working to leverage more federal resources that could be applied to the revitalization project. Funds directed to the L.A. Conservation Corps were put to work in Sepulveda Basin, where a guided kayaking program on summer weekends engaged youth and river guides from the LA Conservation Corps talked about the natural and cultural resources along the river corridor. 

On the other side of the country, RTCA staff are trying to help residents of Atlanta, Georgia, take a dip in the Chattahoochee River. Many Atlanta residents already use the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, which was designated the first national water trail back in 2012. The 48 miles of the National Recreation Area start at Buford Dam on Lake Lanier and include the northern suburbs of Atlanta. But the metro section of the river is still associated with pollution and industrial sites, even though it’s much cleaner thanks to the lawsuit filed by the  Chattahoochee  Riverkeeper; the City of Atlanta responded by spending millions to clean up its aging sewer system. Now, as more people are eager to dip their paddles into the river, they’re finding it just isn’t very easy to do.

“People just need a piece of dirt to get down to the water safely and legally,” says Charlotte Gillis, a landscape architect working in RTCA’s Atlanta office. Without it, kayakers are resorting to ‘guerilla’ tactics—throwing their boats over a highway guard rail, then jumping in the water, getting out of the water and into their boat.” There’s nothing safe or legal about it. But the city’s topography, road system, and land-ownership challenges have essentially turned these nature-lovers into outlaws. Even if you’ve got a healthy budget and a 20-foot boat, there are no docks and marinas for you to put it.

Now, there’s a community effort  to extend the water trail 53 miles downstream through the metro section to Chattahoochee Bend State Park. The Park Service is working with county and city partners to increase the number of safe and legal sites offering access to the river. Organizers are looking to link sites along the trail, including several regional parks, so paddlers can get in and out of the water, stop for a picnic, and enjoy the scenery. The Park Service side of the equation involves producing an inventory of existing and proposed launch sites and providing technical assistance in design and mapping routes. The agency is also helping to create a coordinating committee to oversee the water trail and coordinate its management and maintenance.

“We’re trying to build on the success of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, and take the idea downstream to bring a lot more people to the table,” says Gillis. With 83 miles of water trails north of the city, the goal is to add 55 miles that include the City of Atlanta and five metropolitan counties. In the end, the hope is to create more than 100 miles of paddling that link existing and proposed trails throughout the metro area, making a green web that leads in and out of urban areas. The Park Service is working with Chattahoochee NOW, a coalition of conservation groups, economic-development groups, recreation groups, and historical-cultural groups, to move the water trail project forward and also add other river-related projects.   

“People familiar with this wing of the Park Service recognize the value that we can add as a catalyst, but the spirit of our program is really to support what’s important at the local level,” says Dove, who works on the L.A. River restoration. “In urban areas, people get really excited about the agency’s involvement—it bolsters their efforts, just knowing that the Park Service really cares about improving their community.”

Scott Kirkwood is editor-in-chief of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Fall 2013 issue.

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