Could Kern River Parkway founders Rich O'Neil and Bill Cooper have envisioned in the mid-1970s that the parkway and the bike path would one day stretch 35 miles, from Interstate 5 to Lake Ming?

Well, yes.

Now in their early-70s, the two men were only in their 20s when the idea for a riverside bike path began to take shape — quickly followed by a more comprehensive vision of a parkway foundation that worked to protect, preserve, and restore the natural riparian and wildlife habitat of the Kern River, while providing a beautiful playground for area residents and visitors.

As popular as it is now, their vision was not met with universal acceptance at the time.

"They called us communists," O'Neil recalled.

This year, the parkway turns 45, and the nonprofit Parkway Foundation hopes to assemble the history of the bike path and parkway, including photos of people using the linear park in the 1970s and '80s, said Michelle Beck, the foundation's secretary.

Not that Beck won't consider more recent photos, but in a Facebook post she asked for "pictures of the Parkway before Truxtun extension was put through or when Stockdale Highway ran close to the river out by where Riverwalk is now."

It could be a tall order, but nailing down the history of the foundation and the development of the parkway is important, she said, because local residents should know that this decades-long effort didn't just spring up like a Bakersfield Cactus flower. It took vision, determination and volunteer support from countless individuals.

"I grew up close to the river," Cooper, now 71, said of the Kern. "It was kind of a backyard playground from the time I could get out of the house as a kid."

As he became a young adult, graduating from North High in 1965, he began to notice that long stretches of riverside properties were being sold off and developed, transforming the riparian forest into luxury homes and manicured lawns.

Some local forces tried to limit public access to the river. But across the country, young people had begun to focus on the preservation of natural environments.

Local allies were instrumental, the men said, supporters like former Bakersfield City Councilman Mark Salvaggio, former Councilwoman Sue Benham, former Councilman and now county Supervisor Mike Maggard and many others.

O'Neil recalled being told by a city planner that no one knows where the river is in Bakersfield. But rather than discouraging him, O'Neil was energized by the idea that a bike path running along the south side of the Kern would show residents exactly where their river is — even during the long months when only a riverbed runs through it.

It was Cooper, O'Neil said, who brought him to the realization that a bike path was only a part of what was needed.

"Real estate developers said, 'Why take this land off the tax rolls? Allow us to develop along the river.'"

"Our answer: 'You should not be developing along the river.'"

Even as both men begin to turn over the duties of the foundation to others, they note that there's still much left to accomplish.

Finding a way to keep as least some water in the river through Bakersfield would go a long way in ensuring the longevity of riverside trees, and create more of a greenbelt in a city that could seriously benefit from such an amenity, Cooper said. 

And they'd love to eventually see the bike path extend to the mouth of the Kern River Canyon to the east, and Buena Vista Lake to the west.

These days, no one is calling them communists for fighting to preserve the parkway. On the contrary, thanking them for 45 years of work and dedication is a more typical response.

"No one is really fighting us nowadays," O'Neil said.

Maybe that's a good thing. They could use a break.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(1) comment

Boogerface Nutter

When I still lived in Bakersfield and still had my walking buddy, my Beagle, Decker, We would walk from Yocut park (called yogurt in my goofy family) to Westchester and back, or from the park out past Coffee road. The water systems kept the trees growing when there was no water in the river and it was wonderful.
I still come to town to work on my house, which is now rented to my daughter, and still love to take those walks for old time's sake.
Decker's gone, the trees are not watered and I'm still bound to bury Decker's ashes at the bottom of a tree near the river on one of my trips. Funny. That dog would not get in my pool on a dare but you could not get him out of the river when water was flowing.
Good memories.

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