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Our View: Canyon visitor center a great idea that shouldn’t die

Our View
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Like a pine cone finding a fertile patch of wildfire-scorched hillside, the seed of an American River Canyon visitor’s center has been planted in the psyche of conservationists, preservationists and tourism officials alike. Let’s not let the seedling die. Modest in concept and lacking any funding, the American River Canyon Visitor and Interpretive Center was endorsed recently by the Placer County Board of Supervisors. The resolution means little in securing a location or turning over dirt, but it’s a huge step in adding momentum to the discussion on the future use of the canyon. “Despite the economic climate, we just have to keep dreaming,” said Leslie Warren, the ebullient and driven executive director of the Placer Nature Center, a nonprofit organization leading the charge. Other groups, including the Placer Land Trust, Auburn Recreation District and Placer County Visitor’s Bureau, have been involved in the early discussions. Most importantly, representatives from the federal Bureau of Reclamation and Forest Service, as well as Cal Fire, have been involved in talks about the center for the past two years. Any long-term solution for recreational oversight of the canyon will involve the feds, so it’s essential to have them at the table. If a public-private partnership for an educational facility and visitor’s center can take root, that can only help the cause for a sustainable canyon management plan that preserves the world-class hiking, cycling, equestrian and whitewater opportunities that draw people from around the world. As conceived, the center would have a multitude of uses, offering education and tourism activities and information. A preliminary sketch imagines a central exhibition hall flanked by classrooms, a conference room and office space, with its rear windows facing a panorama of the canyon below. The view might not match the Grand Canyon or Mount St. Helens for grandeur, but anyone who has viewed the American River from the canyon rim knows they are looking at something truly awesome. Early thoughts have the center placed near Cal Fire offices at the Bowman exit along Interstate 80 — a prime position that would certainly draw well off the freeway. Others suggest locations near the confluence of the North and Middle forks of the American River, or near the Auburn Dam Overlook. The Auburn Recreation District’s Canyon View Community Center is underutilized. Could the district be included in plans to use the center as a tourist gathering spot? Some district board members encourage the use of natural trails as a way to stay fit and enjoy our area. This seems like the perfect opportunity to share their resources while promoting one of their goals. While an I-80 location would be ideal for access, viewing and tourism purposes, the next round of discussions shouldn’t get hung up on real estate or cost of construction, but should focus on expanding the public-private partnership critical to making the dream a reality. Let’s emphasize “private.” The state and federal government debt load appears to be with us for years — or decades — to come. Grants and federal appropriations could help with construction, but operations will need to be funded through private means. One option would be a new nonprofit organization, but another would be complementary organizations and agencies bonding together under one roof, mobilizing their staffing, resources and missions in a net sum gain. Likely organizations include the Nature Center, county Visitor’s Bureau and the Auburn Chamber of Commerce. U.S. Forest Service and State Parks rangers and officials also could use the facility, both as a reporting station and educational outpost. Another option could be a recreation concessionaire or co-op of whitewater, trail and equestrian commercial interests, perhaps opening portions of the canyon up to paid trips, hikes and ecotours. There could also be room for a food and beverage purveyor on site to sell sustenance to outdoor enthusiasts hungry after a day of playing in the canyon. The most important thing now is to keep the center dream alive through continued discussion and collaboration. At some point, the timing will be perfect.