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Making sense & cents for Caswell State Park
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One can easily come up with perhaps more than a dozen reasons to preserve Caswell State Memorial Park from budget-beleaguered, cost-cutting-crazy California. As everyone probably knows by now, the Golden State’s more than 200 state parks are being eyed by the powers-that-be in Sacramento as one of the convenient cuts that could be done to trim the $27 billion deficit.

Now comes an idea from a Manteca couple – Thomas Parker and wife Shirley Lee – to create a group of volunteers that would work hard at saving the Central Valley’s last stand of majestic oak trees from the governor’s budget chopping block.

Parker and Lee are talking about possibly forming a Caswell auxiliary or a Friends group, like the Friends of the Manteca Public Library or the Anderson Marsh Interpretive Association of Konocti (California State Parks Northern Buttes District) which proved to be hugely successful in preserving the once at-risk for closure Anderson Marsh State Historic Park located in the southeast corner of Clear Lake in Lake County.

Parker and Lee’s idea makes a lot of sense, if not a lot of cents.

Here are some of the reasons, in my humble opinion, why a Friends of Caswell State Memorial Park would make a lot of sense and why this valley gem should be preserved for posterity, as Thomas Caswell envisioned it to be:

•A gift for future generations to enjoy – that was the main reason behind landowner and farmer Thomas Caswell’s philanthropic gesture in donating his land, according to 97-year-old Mary Bucknam, the older of the two last surviving granddaughters of the man with a heart as big as his foresight was long. Caswell actually deeded initially his 600 acres to a local church with the proviso that it be used to build a home for homeless young boys and a place where they can learn life-enhancing skills. But the church returned the gift because it was already involved in another major project – establishing a seminary in San Francisco. So Caswell offered the land to the state which was reluctant at first but later accepted just a fraction of the acreage. Later, when the park needed to expand, the state ended up buying some of the acreage that the Caswell family sold to other people. The park is currently a 258-acre woodland along the meandering Stanislaus River. Southbound Austin Road from East Highway 120 literally drops you to the park’s entrance.

•Caswell Park is a rare gem of pristine natural beauty. Can you imagine how it was like when riparian oak woodland flourished in the Central Valley? Imagine no more. The reality is there in the thickets at Caswell Park that you can personally experience just by walking along one of its nature trails, although from the memories shared by Bucknam and her two sisters, the present-day Caswell is significantly tame in comparison to the thick wild growth that they encountered everywhere during the family’s picnic outings at the place the family simply called at the time, The Ripon Ranch.

•There is nothing left in the Central Valley that is quite like Caswell Park, a place seemingly lost in time that gives us a glimpse, however small, of a bygone period of time in the history of the state.

•Caswell Park is in such a pristine state that once you get past the entrance gate, you forget that urbanized Ripon and Manteca are just a few miles away.

•Caswell is home to a number of endangered animal species such as the riparian brush rabbit, a creature that is found nowhere else but here, according to experts.

•Caswell’s last stand of valley oak trees and woodland is continuing to decline even as efforts have been made to plant new trees from the acorns produced by the majestic oaks at the park.

•Native Americans called the Yokuts lived here along the river, collecting acorns from the ancient groves for food.

•Spanish explorers once camped in this area. At one time, there was a sign somewhere in a grove that marked where Estanislao used to camp. Estanislao was the man whose name was given to the county and the river that meanders past Caswell Park.

•Fur trappers in the early days also frequented this area because of the bountiful gifts of the river.

•Landowner Caswell donated the 134 acres that served as the seed for what would become the state memorial park that it is today. The philanthropist’s children and grandchildren donated the land to the state in 1950.

•The park grew to its present size of 258 acres thanks to additional donations and land purchases made by the state leading to the official opening of the Caswell Memorial State park to the public in 1958.

•Caswell Park is a mere hour’s drive away from the Bay Area.

•The Stanislaus River that hugs the park offers plenty of reasons for avid anglers to smile. Just ask any fisherman that you know who has cast reel and rod at one of the sandy banks by the river.

•The park may be inland and far from the coast but it offers plenty of sandy beaches along the river where you can take a leisurely swim in the summer. I know. My son and his friends have had many happy hours there during the summer when the valley sizzles and the mercury rises past the century mark.

•With less than $10 for a day-use fee plus a few dollars more to take advantage of camping facilities beneath the canopy of majestic oaks and other towering trees, not to mention the serenade of birds and maybe a friendly wave from a gray squirrel, Caswell Park is one of the most affordable places to go where you can get the best bung for your buck in terms of recreation facilities.

I remember one exciting time years ago when dozens of avid bird watchers and excited Audubon Society people crowded around Caswell Park with their binoculars and cameras for a glimpse of a rare bird that was reportedly seen there.

•Frankly, I would rather see the nearly 300-acre park close to my urban-setting home than another stretch of agricultural fields. And I say that without malice whatsoever to farming and agri-business.

•As a photographer, I would hate to see one of my favorite photo-safari destinations year-round no longer available to replenish my photographic portfolio.

•If Caswell Park is closed, what would happen to such popular educational and informative programs and activities such as the popular Tule Fog Fete, Earth Day, and the nature trails?

The list does not end there, of course. I could go on and on. And so can others, too, I’m sure, who have known and appreciated the multi-faceted benefits of the park a lot longer than my affiliation with it.

So, can this park be saved? There’s plenty of silver lining, apparently. In an e-mail sent Thursday by Ripon Unified School District Superintendent Louise Johnson, she mentioned about the Anderson Marsh State Park in Konocti being rescued by the efforts of a Friends’ group that was formed by volunteers. They “became wildly successful at fundraising for park events and a wonderful educational asset for our students,” Johnson said.

There’s also the Manteca couple, Thomas Parker and Shirley Lee, who would like to form a Friends of Caswell-type of organization where volunteers can actively participate or help in preserving, or even improving, the facilities and programs at the park.

In my story about the couple’s effort and plans which appeared in Friday’s edition of the Manteca Bulletin, the e-mail address of Parker and Lee where people who would like to help can contact them had three letters missing. Their correct e-mail address is