Published Sunday, March 7, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News JOE RODRIGUEZ

BY JOE RODRIGUEZ Mercury News Staff Columnist

THIS valley's main arteries aren't the freeways or expressways. I'm talking about the valley's creeks, and why we must unlock the gates to these beautiful waterways.

No one can do this better than Larry Ames. Let's take a short hike, he said the other day, and I'll show you what we've done. We met at a doughnut shop in Willow Glen. He's a tall and talkative mix of science and nature. Weekdays, he's a physicist who works on Lockheed satellites. In his spare time, he rides bikes and saves creeks.

We walked a block to where the Los Gatos Creek passes through this central San Jose neighborhood. Ames showed me a quarter-mile stretch where state crews used to spread herbicide to kill anything that dared to grow. Today, young oak trees, coyote bushes, sticky monkey flower and many other native plants and trees thrive there.

He led me down to a spot where the creek reaches its widest point.

``Now let's stop talking and just listen,'' he said. ``You wouldn't even know you're in a city.'' He was right. I could hear only the robust creek, birds and a light breeze passing through some bushes.

The place invited contemplation. What if every creek in this valley became an urban greenway, with paved or groomed trails, lamp posts, picnic tables and public restrooms? What if you could walk or bike from downtown San Jose north to San Francisco Bay, south to the Santa Cruz mountains and east to Mount Hamilton without ever leaving the trail?

Why, we'd have a lovely, meandering urban park system to make New York and San Francisco green with envy.

We actually have parts of it already. The Los Gatos Creek Trail running through the towns of Los Gatos and Campbell is immensely popular. Another good example is the Guadalupe River parkway now being built to the bay. Even so, after two decades of planning and work, those trails still aren't finished. Worse, miles upon miles along the Penitencia, Coyote and Stevens creeks remain fenced, diked, dumped on, controlled by private landowners or otherwise closed. And there isn't enough local political interest or clout to develop them soon enough for public use.

If only we could clone a Larry Ames for each creek. Back in the early 1980s, he joined a committee whose plans for extending the Los Gatos Creek Trail into Willow Glen had stalled. ``I joined because I wanted my son to be able to enjoy nature close to home, as I did when I was a young boy,'' Ames said. ``I saw this creek here and nobody could use it.''

The agencies that controlled the creek then and now -- the local water district, a public utility and the state Fish and Game Department -- don't do recreation. The folks who do -- San Jose City Hall and the county -- didn't put high priority on the trail. ``It was all these requirements and things that were working at cross purposes.''

The neighborhood group needed something to jump-start the project, something to cajole or even shame the bureaucracies into cooperating. Ames found an obscure state program for neighborhood groups with novel flood- or erosion-control plans. Essentially, they would beautify and fortify the creek in hopes the agencies would bring the trail through Willow Glen. Their proposal to plant thousands of infant native plants and trees and to bring them along with a solar-powered, drip-irrigation system won the group a $66,500 grant. That did the trick. The county signed on as a co-sponsor, and the city agreed to pave and landscape the trail.

I marvel at Ames' good-natured persistence. As we toured the creek trail, he never said anything nasty about any politician or bureaucrat. In fact, he gives them a lot of credit for supporting the effort. I suppose he saw the bureaucratic tangle over the creek much like a scientific mystery requiring a slow, methodical approach.

Ames so impressed the politicians, they appointed him to the county's parks and recreation commission, which he now chairs.

If I know Larry Ames, he'll let the politicians do the talking and take the credit when they gather to open the Willow Glen section of the Los Gatos Creek Trail sometime this year.

But he's the one who made it happen.