The American River Parkway: Part 2… Featuring Flowers

California Buckeye found on the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. Photo by Curtis Mekemson

This beauty found along the American River Parkway in spring is the California Buckeye. Each individual flower is a potential buckeye.

The concept of creating the American River Parkway can be traced back as far as the 1920s, but the actual creation of the park took place in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Impetus came when land speculators begin buying up the relatively inexpensive land along the river for future development.

Conservation-minded visionaries of the time realized a regional treasure was about to be lost.  A prized riparian habitat of great beauty and recreational value to the community of Sacramento would soon give way to bulldozers, for sale signs, and limited public access. Armed with passion and facts, these early environmental leaders were able to persuade the City and County of Sacramento to create the parkway.

And for that, we owe the environmentalists and elected officials a deep vote of gratitude. The American River Parkway is an urban asset that few communities throughout the US, or for that matter around the world, can claim.

The battle to maintain the natural resources of the parkway continues. The balance between recreational use and protection of the riparian habitat is a delicate one. Tough financial times and deep budget cuts led local politicians to insist that the parkway pay more of its maintenance costs. And this, unfortunately, has led to a demand for increased recreational use to pick up the tab, which is threatening the natural environment. Birds, plants and animals don’t contribute to the public till, at least not directly. Nor do they vote.

Although free parks benefit everyone, there is nothing wrong with insisting that people who use the park help pay for its maintenance. And it is healthy that volunteers have stepped in to take up the slack created by fewer park staff. Continued government support is needed as well, however.

The City of Sacramento recently voted to spend $250 million dollars to build a basketball stadium downtown. While it isn’t my purpose to oppose the stadium, it does seem to me if local politicians can find money to support what is basically a private venture that will serve some 700 thousand basketball fans per year, they should be able to find funds to support the community’s greatest asset that serves 5 million people per year. And will continue to– far into the future. Don’t you think?

The American River Parkway is used by people of all ages and persuasions. Below is a photo of Peggy with her dad, John Dallen, on the river. When John and his wife Helen reached their mid-80s, their children– Peggy, Jane Hagedorn, and John Jr.– insisted that they come out and live in Sacramento. John Sr. was not happy leaving his nature walks behind in Florida so I started taking him out to the parkway on Wednesday mornings. He absolutely fell in love with it, and I like to believe that the parkway made his last years much happier. The experience reminded me just how valuable the parkway, and other such natural areas around the world , are to the billions of people who live in urban centers.

John Dallen and his daughter, Peggy Mekemson, on the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California.

John Dallen and Peggy Mekemson on the American River Parkway

Three community-based organizations work exclusively to preserve the American River Parkway and deserve public support.  These organizations are:

The Save the American River Association (SARA) was founded in the 1960s to advocate for the American River Parkway. Its mission “is to protect and enhance the wildlife habitat, fishery, and recreational resources of the American River Parkway.”

The American River Parkway Foundation (ARPF) “coordinates programs and works with volunteers to foster environmental stewardship, facilitate volunteer opportunities, as well as fund and implement Parkway projects.”

The American River Natural History Association (ARNHA), “supports educational and interpretive activities in the American River Parkway through operating and funding Effie Yeaw Nature Center, a program that introduces thousands of school children each year to the beauty and diversity of the American River Parkway.”

Each spring, the parkway bursts out in bloom. So my photographs this time will feature flowers of the American River Parkway.

California Buckeye trees along the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Bursting with bloom, these buckeye trees are found at William Pond Park. A close up of the flowers is found above.

Almond tree blossoms along the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Pioneer farmers once raised crops along what is now the parkway. These are blossoms from a remaining almond tree.

Dutchman's Pipe plant on the American River Parkway. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Dutchman’s Pipe is one of my favorite flowers. It obtained its name, so they say, by looking  like a Dutchman’s pipe.

Pipevine caterpillar dining on Dutchman Pipevine Plant on the American River Parkway.

Here we have the Pipevine Caterpillar chomping away on a pipevine plant.

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly on the American River Parkway

The caterpillar morphs into the Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly. The pipevine plant is poisonous, which doesn’t harm the caterpillar or the butterfly, but does harm predators that might want to eat them.The distinct marking on the butterfly’s wings translates into an “eat me and die” sign. Other butterflies mimic the wings in hopes of taking advantage of the message..

Opening Jimsonweed flower on the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Speaking of poisonous, this stunning flower belongs to the Jimsonweed plant, which is a member of the nightshade family. It is just opening up in this photo.

Jimsonweed flower on the American River Parkway.

Most people are more familiar with the flower looking like this, which is a perspective made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe. Note the extremely long pistil.

Evening Primrose found near the Effie Yeaw Nature Center on the American River Parkway. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

An Evening Primrose, which I found near the Effie Yeaw Nature Center.

Scotch Broom found on the American River Parkway. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Another yellow beauty, Scotch Broom. This plant was brought over from Scotland because of its beauty. Unfortunately it is a highly invasive plant that replaces native plants. Efforts are underway to eradicate it on the parkway.

Yellow Iris growing on the American River Parkway.

And a yellow iris.

Blue Elderberry flowers along the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Elderberry flowers. The blue fruit of the plant was prized by  Native Americans. An elderly woman once tried to entice my father, who was in his late 70s at the time, by making him elderberry wine. He refused to comment on the success of the strategy.

Winter Vetch along the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Another invader, winter vetch was originally brought in from Europe as a forage plant for livestock.

California Poppies and Winter Vetch growing together on the American River Parkway.

A mixed bouquet of California Poppies and Winter Vetch.

Plants don’t have to be flowering to be attractive, as the following photos demonstrate,

Seeding Milk Thistle plant on the American River Parkway. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

This Milk Thistle is in the process of distributing its seeds. Note the insect that seems to fit right in.

Dried Milk Thistle on the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

An older Milk Thistle looking a bit ferocious. I think it would be interesting in a dried flower arrangement.

Dead leaves form a California Buckeye on the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

I found these dead leaves to be rather attractive as well. I believe they were on a buckeye tree.

Cluster of young, wild grapes found on the American River Parkway. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

You can see grapes developing on this wild cousin to domestic grapes.

I conclude this post with a wild rose.

I conclude this post with a wild rose.

The American River Parkway… Sacramento’s Greatest Treasure: Part 1

The American River as it flows through William Pond Park on the American River Parkway.

The City and County of Sacramento, with strong urging by local citizen groups, made the decision in the 1960s and 70s to create a corridor along the American River that would protect its natural beauty and create recreation opportunities for the people of Sacramento for generations to come. This photo was taken in William Pond Park looking upriver.

“The American River Parkway is a true treasure in the landscape of Sacramento. The parkway is a 23 mile, 4,600-acre expanse of land, water and nature. Our forefathers were smart in wanting to protect this wonderful resource hence creating a regional park.”      American River Parkway Foundation

I was in Sacramento last week and decided to go for a hike on the American River Parkway. It wasn’t my first. If you count the years it was my primary bike route into town, I estimate I’ve been out on the parkway at least 2000 times. Beyond biking, the parkway served as my escape to the woods when I needed a quick break from the city, which was often. So I know a bit about it.

Drought and tight government budgets had taken their toll on the parkway, but it was still beautiful and crowded with visitors. (Some five million people use the parkway annually, which is as many who stop off at the Grand Canyon.)

I wandered along and happily visited my old haunts– first checking out William Pond Park and then hiking across the Harold Richey Memorial Bridge to River Bend Park. I once had a five-mile route that wound through the two parks. This time I kept it to three.

William Pond was the Director of Parks during the 1960s when the parkway was first proposed. This is the pond in William Pond Park. I cal it  William Pond Pond.

William Pond was the Director of Sacramento County Parks during the 1960s when the parkway was first proposed. This is the pond in William Pond Park. I call it William Pond Pond.

Reflection pool created by spring rains along the American River Parkway in Sacramento. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Springtime rains provide more opportunities for reflection shots along the American River Parkway.

Staring into shallow rapids can be a form of meditation. Arising from the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains, the American River is noted for its pure water.

Staring into shallow rapids can be a form of meditation. Arising from the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains, the American River is noted for its pure water.

Cliff swallows nesting under a bridge on the American River Parkway.

I found these baby cliff swallows nesting under the Harold Richey bridge that connects William Pond and River Bend Parks. Note the big mouths and tight fit.

This thumb sized spider lived up on the bridge between the metal railings and competed with the swallows for insects.

This large spider lived up on the bridge between the metal railings and competed with the swallows for insects. It was busily wrapping up its latest catch.

Woodland park on American River Parkway in Sacramento. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

An inviting woodland found in River Bend Park. It always made me think of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest.

I decided the Parkway would make a good post. Photos weren’t an issue. In fact, I have too many. I’d carried a camera on many of my outings during the 2000’s before Peggy and I took off on our three-year road trip in 2007.  Most of the photos on this post are from that time period.

Since I have been out of touch with the parkway for several years, I jumped online to do some research. That’s where I came across the above quote from the American River Parkway Foundation. The Foundation is a good organization, and I was happy to steal its quote, but I got a little hung up over the use of forefathers. Like I know what forefathers are– they are old, really old, like Mayflower old. I think you have to be dead to qualify.

And I was around when much of the parkway was being developed. In 1970 I served as the first Executive Director of Sacramento’s Ecology Information Center. I then went on to co-found the Environmental Council of Sacramento and, along with Bruce Kennedy, create an organization that supported local candidates based on their environmental stands. Each of these organizations provided strong support for the parkway, which put me in regular contact with the ‘forefathers,’ and brings me to the case in point. I may be older than your average John Doe, but I am not Mayflower old, or dead, for that matter.

I am just kidding about the forefather bit, of course, having some fun at the expense of the Foundation. Like I said, they are good kids. They should add foremothers to their list, however. In my next blog, I’ll talk more about the importance of the parkway to Sacramento and about the organizations that support it. But now it’s time to head out to the park.

Numerous hiking trails introduce visitors to the beauty and natural history of the American River Parkway. I took this photo in Effie Yeaw Park.

Numerous hiking trails introduce visitors to the beauty and natural history of the American River Parkway. I took this photo in Effie Yeaw Park.

Valley oaks on the American River Parkway in Sacramento.

The parkway is noted for its magnificent valley oaks. Peggy’s sister and my good friend, Jane Hagedorn, has a grove of oaks named after her in the parkway honoring her efforts in protecting Sacramento’s environment and in promoting the planting of trees throughout the urban area.

Leafy valley oaks on the American River Parkway.

Adding a lush green in summer…

Valley Oak on American River Parkway in winter.

…valley oaks take on a more stark beauty in winter.

Canadian Geese on the American River Parkway.

The area supports abundant wildlife including this family of Canadian Geese.

Mallard ducks on the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California.

A pair of mallard ducks keep an eye on me. I was particularly taken by the male’s yellow slit. I’d say that it is a ‘don’t mess with me’ look.

Brush rabbit on American River Parkway.

A brush rabbit pauses in his busy rounds. Rabbits, deer, beaver, coyotes, and a number of other animals call the parkway home. Once, I even came across cougar tracks.

Wasp on American River Parkway. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

I considered this wasp a photo-op. It is actually on the opposite side of the leaf, outlined by the sun.

NEXT BOG: A continuing look at the parkway with a focus on flowers. The California Poppy below is to serve as an introduction– and to wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day.

California Poppy on the American River Parkway in Sacramento, California. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

A Phone Call Forces Me to GASP: California’s Prop 99

The roots of California's Proposition 99, the Anti-Tobacco Initiative, reached back into the 1970s when the American Lung Association of Sacramento teamed up with GASP, the Group Against Smokers' Pollution, to pass one of the nation's first non-smoking ordinances. (GASP would eventually become Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.)

The path that led me into the tobacco wars had enough twists and turns to scare a contortionist snake out of his skin. There are lots of stories. Two are particularly relevant to the creation of California’s Proposition 99, the Anti-Tobacco Initiative.

I was recruited to become Assistant Director of the American Lung Association of Sacramento in 1971. The organization wanted my environmental expertise, not my anti-tobacco fervor. In fact I smoked a pipe. I loved my pipe. “No problem,” the Executive Director told me. He, his secretary and almost everyone else in the organization smoked. It was almost required.

One day in 1972 I was sitting in my office counting Christmas Seal Dollars and happily puffing away when I got the call that would lead me to sacrifice my pipe and eventually advocate that Prop 99 include nonsmokers’ rights.

“Mr. Mekemson” the caller began, setting off a red flag. I always get nervous when someone calls me Mr. Mekemson.

“Yes, this is Curtis,” I replied. “What can I do for you?”

“My name is Alice Fox, Mr. Mekemson. Some friends and I would like to meet you.”

Alice Fox, Alice Fox, Alice Fox… the name raced through my mind. I had heard about her recently. Then it came to me. I had read about Alice in the Sacramento Bee. She was leading a charge to shut down a nude beach on the American River. But why would Alice call me. I was a Seventies type of guy.

“Exactly what would you like to meet about,” I asked. Now was the time to be very careful.

“Some friends and I would like to talk with you about how tobacco smoke impacts our health,” she replied.

I relaxed. I was on safe ground. “There is a great deal of information that smoking causes lung disease,” I responded in a positive tone. “I would be glad to send you some pamphlets on the medical evidence. I also have a brochure that provides tips on quitting.”

“No,” a somewhat exasperated Alice Fox shouted in my ear, “we don’t smoke. It is other people’s smoke that makes us sick.”

There was a pregnant pause on my end of the phone. If Alice heard me coughing, it may have been because I had swallowed my pipe. Not knowing what to say, I stumbled into agreeing to have lunch with her the following week.

The die was cast. But first I tried to persuade my boss, Larry Kirk, that he should go. He was, after all, the Executive Director.

“No way,” Larry said with a nervous laugh as he took a deep drag. They had specifically asked for me and I was stuck with it. There was nothing to do but square my shoulders, put my pipe aside, and dutifully go forth for Mother Lung.

I expect the nonsmokers smelled the pipe smoke on me 20 feet away. We met at a small restaurant in the old Public Market at 13 and J Street. The Market would eventually morph into a Sheraton Hotel.

“We are so glad you were willing to meet with us,” Ed Randal, their leader greeted me. “We are having a difficult time persuading people that second-hand smoke makes us sick.”

He handed me his card. It read, “I don’t smoke but I chew. If you don’t blow your smoke on me, I won’t spit on you.”  I immediately understood why Ed might have difficulty selling his cause.

“Not too subtle,” I noted.

“We can’t afford to be,” was the response. Over the next hour I was educated as to why. Gradually, I became convinced that second-hand smoke did indeed make them sick. They all had compelling stories.

I also came to understand something of the frustration they felt in convincing society in general and smokers in particular that second-hand smoke was an issue. In 1972 it was a message far ahead of its time. Most smokers assumed they could smoke whenever and wherever they pleased. I know I did. The vast majority of nonsmokers went along with the idea. It took guts to challenge the norm.

I also had an ‘aha’ experience. I started out being resentful about leaving my pipe behind but over the hour my attitude began to change. These folks shouldn’t have to breathe my pipe smoke.

How many other people had my thoughtlessness harmed?

The question had a strong impact on me. Eventually it would lead me to give up smoking. This was something that neither my knowledge of health effects nor my responsibility as a health professional had been able to accomplish.

As a result, I became convinced that we had a powerful new weapon in our fight against lung disease. If I used myself as an example, “Please don’t smoke around me” was as effective in discouraging tobacco use as it was in protecting the nonsmoker.

Somewhat to my surprise, I volunteered to help Ed, Alice and Company in their effort. An organization called GASP, the Group Against Smoking Pollution, had been set up in Berkeley and the local folks wanted to establish a chapter in Sacramento. I offered the Lung Association for meetings and myself as staff backup. Before we broke up for the day, we had agreed on holding a general membership meeting the next month.

I can’t say that Larry was enthusiastic about my offer or conclusions. A surprising number of Lung Execs smoked and were no more prepared to accept nonsmokers’ rights than smokers in the general public. Mainly they saw their role with tobacco as discouraging young people from starting to smoke.

But Larry had hired me as his assistant because he respected my instincts and judgment. Reluctantly, he agreed to have Lung support GASP. But it would be my baby, not his.

So we set about organizing a meeting. Alice and Ed corralled their friends and I had a small article placed in the Bee. We came up with an agenda and refreshments. I warned our organizing committee not to expect much the first time out. Ten people and a few ideas for expanding membership would be a roaring success.

Fifteen minutes before the meeting was to start the room was packed. Apparently, I was the only one surprised. As we went around the room for introductions two things became apparent. First, this was a broad-based group of people. We had health professionals, a couple of lawyers, several business people, housewives, a househusband, an electrician, and others.

Second, everyone had stories to tell and they were ecstatic they had empathetic listeners. I felt like I was in the middle of a revival, which is often the atmosphere created by grassroots organizations.

Once we worked through the preliminaries and had a semblance of order, I facilitated a brainstorming session on what we might do to create awareness of non-smokers’ rights in Sacramento. If my pipe smoking was to be limited, I might as well have company.

The ideas came fast and furious. We should arm nonsmokers with fans to blow smoke back at smokers. We should print up and distribute thousands of the “I don’t smoke but I chew,” cards. We should picket grocery stores, clothing stores and restaurants. We should create an ordinance.

“Whoa,” I interjected, abandoning my facilitator’s role. “Let’s talk about the ordinance.”

Sacramento would be one of the first cities in the nation (or world) advocating such a law.

“Our chances of winning are slim,” I began, thinking out loud, “but that may not matter. The effort will generate great media coverage, probably more than all the other activities combined. Think of the awareness we will create.”

The idea was greeted with enthusiastic support. The newly formed Sacramento Chapter of GASP had a mission.

“I can take a stab at drafting the ordinance,” one of the attorneys volunteered.

“I know a reporter who will support us,” another offered.

“Anything you need,” another called out. We would not lack volunteers. As for myself, I agreed to set up meetings with members of the City Council. I knew most of them from my work in the environmental movement and had worked on several of their campaigns. We were off and running.

The ordinance seems rather tame now, but it was radical for its time. We targeted grocery stores, retail stores, restaurants and movie theaters. It was still the era when a newly purchased suit might smell like cigarette smoke and a harried shopper might inadvertently lose her ashes in the vegetable bin at the grocery store.

It didn’t take long for things to heat up. As we suspected, the press had a field day. Reporters didn’t necessarily agree with us, one of the smokiest atmospheres in town was the local newsroom, but controversy is the bread and butter of the media business. Imagine a smoker having to wait until he got outside of a grocery store to light up.

Each time the media ran a story, awareness increased. We were achieving our objective. Non smokers were learning it was okay to say “Yes, I do mind if you smoke,” and people who suffered adverse reactions from second-hand smoke were learning they weren’t crazy. We took every opportunity to educate the public and pound home our message to decision-makers.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. We won. A majority of City Council became convinced, as I had, that a significant number of nonsmokers were adversely affected by second-hand smoke.

Of equal importance, the local grocery store chains and clothing merchants let the decision-makers know they would prefer smoke free environments.

And finally, we had minimal opposition from the tobacco industry. It was several years before the industry fully realized the threat posed by the non-smokers right’s movement, or how dedicated the non-smokers’ rights advocates were, or how effective a small group of people can be in making change.

Sacramento had become a leader in the anti-tobacco movement and would continue to be over the next quarter of a century. While I moved on to other issues, the local Lung Association under the leadership of Jane Hagedorn and her Board of Directors became one of the strongest advocates for a smoke-free society in the United States.

Ten years later I would rejoin the Tobacco Wars, this time in Alaska.

One Million Lives and 86 Billion Dollars Saved… California’s Proposition 99

In the late 80s the tobacco industry mounted an "unprecedented campaign," to defeat California's Proposition 99, an initiative designed to increase the California tax on cigarettes by $.25 and devote a substantial portion of the funds to discouraging tobacco use. The Tobacco Institute recognized that the initiative posed one of the greatest threats to tobacco consumption it had ever encountered.

My friend Ken Lake sent me an article from the Sacramento Bee a few weeks ago. It reported on the latest results from California’s Proposition 99, a massive tobacco use prevention effort kicked off by a tobacco tax initiative passed by California voters in the late 80s.

According to the California Department of Health Services, an estimated one million lives and 86 billion dollars in health care costs have been saved because of prevention programs funded by the tax. California now has the second lowest incidence of tobacco use in the nation and the state is virtually smoke-free. It has the lowest incidence of cancer for 6 of the 9 cancers caused by tobacco use. Fewer teens smoke in California than any other state.

These figures are remarkable. How many times in history has a single act saved one million lives? How often do health care costs go down instead of up? And there is more, much more.

Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death and disease in America and a major factor in preventable death and disease worldwide. The revolution in disease prevention that took place in California is a revolution that has reverberated throughout the United States and around the world, a fact recognized by both the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

As a result, the million lives and billions of dollars saved in California can be multiplied several times over on a national and global basis. Prevention works.

Credit for the success of Proposition 99 in the quarter of century since its inception goes to a cast of hundreds, if not thousands. Certainly the Tobacco Control Section of the California Department of Health Services and its dedicated staff have been critical but dozens of organizations, hundreds of staff people and thousands of volunteers have also played key roles.

In the beginning, however, in the very, very beginning, it was a handful of people in Sacramento who put the effort together and made the critical decisions that would allow Proposition 99 to become the revolution in prevention it has become.

I was privileged to be one of those people.

Over the next two months I will do a series of blogs that provide an inside look at what happened during Prop 99’s first critical months starting in September of 1986. It’s a story of how and why a small group of friends decided to take on one of the worlds most powerful, amoral industries in the cause of preventing the death and crippling disease caused by tobacco use.

It’s a good story, worth telling on its own merits. Greed, power politics, human emotion and sacrifice are all included. There’s even some humor. But I also want to make the point that a few dedicated and knowledgeable individuals can make a significant difference. It’s an important message for today’s world where ideology, ambition and greed triumph over working together in the common interest.

In my next blog I will tell the story  of Prop 99’s beginning and how I became involved. Believe me, I did not start out to become an anti-tobacco warrior.