The Northern California city of Fort Bragg has a population of 7,200 and is located on the beautiful Mendocino coast. It is the largest city on the coast between San Francisco and Eureka, and is more than a three-hour drive from each of those cities. During the 20th century the city’s economy was largely based on the timber and fishing industries. At the turn of the century, Fort Bragg was looking for new ways to boost its economy. However, Fort Bragg’s Coastal Restoration & Trail Project transformed the coastline of a blighted lumber mill into a recreational park with native plants and a multiuse trail that provides public access along a four-mile stretch of coast that had been fenced off for more than a century.
By the turn of the millennium, Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor based fishing fleet had declined to just a handful of boats. Local fisheries fell victim to overfishing, overregulation, or overharvesting along spawning streams. Soon after the decline of the fisheries, the Georgia-Pacific lumber mill permanently shuttered its operations in late 2002. Two decades of unsustainable timber harvesting had left the north coast’s redwood forests with insufficient timber to support the lumber mill.
Fort Bragg’s mill provided good jobs for generations of residents and at its peak employed 1,500 people. Closure of the mill devastated the local economy and marked the end of an era. Not only had the community lost its primary employer, but Fort Bragg’s deeply rooted identity as a logging and fishing town was also lost. Fort Bragg was at a crossroads and the city’s leaders realized that the mill closure presented an unique opportunity for the community to plan for its future.
The blighted mill site covered 425 acres in the city’s center of the city and spanned its entire coastline. For more than a century, Fort Bragg was a coastal town without a waterfront because the mill had blocked public access to the coast.
In 2003, the Coastal Conservancy awarded Fort Bragg an urban waterfront grant to plan for reuse of the Georgia-Pacific mill site. Hundreds of local residents participated in an extensive community visioning process from which two key priorities emerged: provide public access along the coast; and help transition Fort Bragg’s local economy from mining based industries to a rebuilding based economy. The community agreed that Fort Bragg’s spectacular and remote coastal setting is the key to its future. The planning process generated an Open Space Framework that mapped a conceptual layout for a coastal trail and park system spanning the entire coastline of the mill site.
There were a number of challenges to transforming an old mill into the coastal park. The mill site was purchased and the property was contaminated from a century of industrial use with large areas that were covered with asphalt and compacted gravel. Huge volumes of stormwater ran across the site creating unstable and retreating coastal bluffs and the coastline included significant sensitive resources such as rare plants, bird nesting areas, wetlands, and marine mammal haul outs and Native American cultural sites that would need to be protected and preserved. Millions of dollars were needed to restore the property and construct the coastal trail.
The Fort Bragg Coastal Restoration & Trail project was conceived as a key recreational service that would serve the community and its visitors. The city spent several years negotiating for acquisition of approximately 100 acres stretching along the four-mile coastline on the former mill site. It was clear to the city that development was far off in the future. The mill site faced a complicated environmental remediation process; the market for new development in Fort Bragg is constrained by its remote location; and the entitlement process in California’s coastal zone is complex and time consuming.
In 2006, the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program offered Fort Bragg technical support for a community based design process for the parkland. RTCA planners led an intensive, invitational; three-day design workshop attended by nearly 70 civic leaders and community stakeholders. The conceptual plan became the basis for the project’s environmental review, permitting, and design. Public meetings were held to refine the design. City staff also led hikes on the property to give community members a sneak preview of the coastline that few had ever seen.
The city spent nearly two years consulting with the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, a local tribe with deep connections to Fort Bragg’s coastline, to honor the tribe’s concerns and redesign the project to avoid disturbance of cultural sites. A preserve was established within the park that is accessible only for scientific research and tribal use.
The city imported 25,000 cubic yards of dredge sands from the Noyo Harbor District (which simultaneously solved the district’s quandary over disposal of the material). The dredge sands were composted with spent grains from Fort Bragg’s North Coast Brewing Company. This formed the basis for restoration of the site. Native seeds were collected locally by Jughandle Farm to ensure diversity of native vegetation on the 23 acres of newly created habitat (formerly asphalt). The project has resulted in a significant expansion of several federal and state listed plant populations.
After years of negotiation, Fort Bragg succeeded in acquiring its coastline for public access. The State Coastal Conservancy awarded the city $4.2 million for purchase of 37 acres along the coast and Georgia-Pacific agreed to dedicate another 45 acres as part of the deal. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which oversees the mill site environmental remediation process, helped expedite the cleanup of the future parkland with the city taking the title to the 82-acre coastal site in 2011.
Construction of the coastal trail and restoration of the bluffs took several years to complete and was funded by over $7 million in grants from Proposition 84, the State Coastal Conservancy and Caltrans. The northern segment of the Fort Bragg Coastal Restoration & Trail Project was opened to the public in February 2015 and the southern segment was opened in December 2015. The trail is tremendously popular with local residents and visitors. In peak summer months, thousands of people visit Fort Bragg’s coastal trail each day. The park has transformed Fort Bragg into a waterfront community.
The year 2015 was the strongest year for tourism in Fort Bragg. People are flocking to the new coastal trail and the influx is helping local businesses. In FY 2015–16, the city experienced higher Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) receipts than ever before. Year to year, after the trail opened, Fort Bragg’s TOT revenues jumped 7 percent. The city, with the support of local lodging establishments, is now planning a ballot measure to increase the TOT rate to generate more revenue for marketing and promotions of Fort Bragg and to support coastal trail maintenance and security.
Fort Bragg has now set its sights on development of the Noyo Center for Marine Science on an 11-acre site adjacent to the new park and the North Coast Brewing Company is planning to triple its production capacity and build a destination brewery on a nearby parcel on the former mill site.