AMERICAN CANYON — Barry Christian stood at the northernmost end of the American Canyon wetlands trail and contemplated the missing link, the promised land, the forbidden area he so much wants to walk through.
A few hundred feet of additional trail along a berm in Fagan Marsh would reach Napa Sanitation District property. From that point, Christian is confident the trail could someday be pushed to the city of Napa, creating a 13-mile trek near wetlands, mudflats and the Napa River.
Local open space advocates such as Christian have long wanted to create this off-the-beaten-track, American Canyon-to-Napa connection, of which about seven miles already exist. They view securing a trail through Fagan Marsh near Napa County Airport as a major sticking point.
“We’re just asking for this tiny little portion right along the edge between the airport and Fagan Marsh,” Christian said. “One tiny slice.”
That few hundred feet might as well be a great expanse, given it is owned by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the agency says “no.” Christian led a recent hike of a dozen people to the edge of Fagan Marsh to draw attention to the situation.
“We’ve got this one little bottleneck,” said Christian, who is on the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District Board of Directors.
Fagan Marsh is a state ecological reserve and a state marine park. It is home to rare creatures such as the black rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. This is public land, to be sure, but public land off-limits to hikers.
“Fagan Marsh is a pristine and historic wetland – one of the very few, unaltered, undiked marshes left in the state,” Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Peter Tira wrote in an email.
The primary purpose of the ecological preserve is protecting sensitive plant and animal species. Other uses, whether recreation, education or scientific study, must be compatible, he wrote.
Given the pristine nature of the habitat and large concentration of protected species, there is no way to mitigate for the “irreparable damage that would result from a trail through the marsh,” Tira wrote.
Local open space advocates aren’t giving up. They say the trail would only skirt the marsh. They note that Fish and Wildlife allows people to enter Fagan Marsh in small, non-motorized boats to fish, both from boat and from shore.
“If that’s not an impact, I don’t see how people on a levee nearby will be an impact,” Open Space District General Manager John Woodbury said.
Christian sees a possible benefit for Fagan Marsh from the trail.
“If people can’t get out there and experience it, they don’t care about it and they don’t know about it,” Christian said. “I think it gets damaged that way. It’s in danger of being damaged or lost.”
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, convened talks between local open space advocates and Fish and Wildlife officials last year to talk about the Fagan Marsh situation. Woodbury said no solution emerged.
The other possibility is for the trail to avoid Fagan Marsh and go on adjacent Napa County Airport land. But Christian said that could raise issues with the Federal Aviation Administration.
American Canyon resident Paul Juberg joined Christian on the recent trek to the edge of Fagan Marsh. He uses the existing American Canyon wetlands trails and he too would like to keep going to the city of Napa.
“Absolutely,” Juberg said. “That would be incredible.”
Maureen Gaffney of the San Francisco Bay Trail also participated in that recent attention-focusing hike led by Christian. The Bay Trail is to stretch for 500 miles along the region’s shorelines, with 350 miles already existing. The American Canyon-to-Napa connection is another planned segment.
“We say the low-hanging fruit has been picked and the hard part is left,” Gaffney told the couple dozen hikers.
Fagan Marsh is among the hard parts.
Napa County trail advocates have eyed an American Canyon-to-Napa trail near the Napa River and adjacent wetlands for years. The Napa Bay Trail study from 2007 said the trail would be 13 miles long and cost about $11 million.
Much progress has happened since then. American Canyon has several miles of wetlands trails starting at the end of Eucalyptus Drive, with a parking lot at the trail head. One path extends for about two-and-a-half miles north to Green Island Road.
Hike this levee at high tide and waters to the west seem to extend all the way to distant Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. Birds ranging from egrets to blue herons are common sights. So are hikers, runners and bike riders.
North of Green Island Road, the levee trail along former salt ponds turned into wildlife habitat is unmarked and difficult to find. After about a mile, it ends at Fagan Slough, where a bridge would be needed to cross into the off-limits Fagan Marsh.
“It’s 360 degrees of open space around you,” Christian said. “And it’s absolutely beautiful.”
North of Fagan Marsh is land owned by the Napa Sanitation District with sprawling sewage treatment ponds. Woodbury said NapaSan officials are willing to discuss the possibility of a trail there, but that nothing has been finalized because of the missing Fagan Marsh piece.
The NapaSan property ends at a three-quarter mile section of trail that goes under Highway 29 at Butler Bridge and along the Napa River. This section opened in 2015 and ends at Napa Pipe, which is to have a section of the trail when the property develops with homes, businesses and a Costco.
From Napa Pipe, the trail is to go a short distance across Syar Industries property on an easement that Syar in 2015 agreed to donate. Then the trail would reach an existing trail in Kennedy Park that runs several miles along the Napa River to downtown Napa.
That’s the dream.
“We know people come to Napa Valley for the beauty of it,” Christian said. “I think our wetlands are very beautiful.”