Admitting that the open-space trail system is a car wreck, as one trail is aptly named, hikers and mountain bikers were asked to ditch any antagonism and work together to improve everyone’s outdoor experience in the South Coast Wilderness, 22,000 acres of open space around Laguna Beach.
The Laguna Canyon Foundation held its first-ever open forum last week between the two disparate groups, asking for cooperation and solutions so that bikers, hikers and habitat can co-exist.
The foundation’s executive director, Hallie Jones, said it’s time for bikers to lay down their shovels and quit cutting illegal trails and for hikers to heed designated paths.
With 400,000 visitors in just Laguna Coast Wilderness last year alone, concern is mounting for the survival of the habitat, Jones said. Half of the trail-users are mountain bikers.
Mountain bikers are known for touting an “outlaw” attitude of taking or making any trail they want, which “hasn’t gotten us very far,” Jones told the group of 35 avid bikers and hikers. The group met at Legion Hall, the foundation’s headquarters.
“Sometimes I want to go home and cry I’m so frustrated,” she said, telling the bikers that illegal trail-carving is no longer acceptable.
But mountain bikers aren’t the only offenders, she said.
Hikers do a more subtle version of cutting new trails, she said, called “social trails.” They want to get up close to a cave or rock formation off the marked trail, trampling the fragile and unique coastal sage habitat.
Either way, cutting or trampling is a “habitat attack,” she said.
“You’ll have this once-beautiful canyon and now it’s crisscrossed with trails and doesn’t provide the same value as a habitat as it used to,” she said in a pre-forum conversation. “There’s a reason the authorized trails system is there.”
With 42 miles of trails in Laguna Canyon and Aliso-Wood Canyons Wilderness parks and a county of 3 million people and growing, Jones said the parks are only going to see more bi-peddling traffic.
There was no plan for the trails when the county first started acquiring the land decades ago, Stacey Blackwood, hired as the director of Orange County Parks last year, told the group. Most of the trails being used today were livestock or truck trails never intended for recreation, she said.
“When someone is perched on a hill with binoculars, they may not be listening for a mountain bike coming down the hill,” she said. “There may be a conflict. There may be a perceived conflict even though it hasn’t really happened.”
“As we further develop or revamp the infrastructure throughout the park system, we plan to better handle the mixed needs of ecosystem, public safety and personal enjoyment,” she explained. Her priority is to protect the habitat, she said, and decide whether to abandon old paths and develop new ones more compatible with nature. Overseeing a county parks department budget of $100 million, Blackwood said a “healthy” sum of $8 to $15 million is designated for physical park improvements.
Limiting access for hikers and bikers to specific days of the week or designating certain trails for specific activities to assuage overuse are options being considered by the county, Blackwood said. Grumblings from the audience started to stir.
For now, the answer for park visitors is to stay on designated trails. “You don’t get to walk wherever you want,” Jones said.
With trail-closed signs being “taco-ed,” folded like a taco, or ending up in trees, it’s time for the foundation to get “their head out of the weeds,” said Alan Kaufmann, the foundation’s new restoration manager. The solution, he said is to create a habitat-aware program that gets all trail-users involved to create a pleasing wilderness experience.
The parks’ biggest problem, he said, is steep, single-track trails, which were illegally made by mountain-bikers when the land was owned by Irvine Ranch. “Trails should minimize conflicts,” he said. “When you’re spending $10,000 on a bike, bikers need to let people know they’re coming.”
Cowbells, he said, will be offered at each wilderness staging area for bikers to hang on their handlebars. Kaufmann was asked if adrenaline-seeking downhillers will actually stop to pick up a cowbell. “They’re doing it in Sedona, Marin County, San Diego, Santa Barbara,” he said.
Brad Larkins, a 30-year member of SHARE mountain-biking club, a local chapter of the International Mountain Biking Assn., suggested that different groups sponsor trails, which keeps them maintained and engenders respect. “How can we help?” he asked. “We’ve got money. We’ve got manpower.”
With trail work previously done solely by park volunteers, LCF hired its first professional trail management team last fall. Kaufmann is restoration program manager with past fire and wilderness experience, and Mike Hall is trail coordinator, who previously volunteered as a trail liaison and bicycle docent. Both are now in the field regularly working with volunteers brushing off “cake mix” dust stirred up by bikers, grading dips and bolstering berms. Jones was hired 18 months ago.
The foundation works closely with Orange County Parks in maintaining trails in Laguna Wilderness Park, Aliso and Wood Canyons, Crystal Cove State Park and south Irvine open space.
The first step, Hall said, is to maintain what’s there. Working on Five Oaks Trail in Aliso and Wood Canyons, steep berms are being armored with turf blocks to help handle the impact.
The experience is the bottom line, Jones and her new staff agreed. “An important part…is making sure you’re giving people the experience they’re looking for, whether they’re hikers or bikers. When you do that, you’re going to get more compliance with people to stay on the authorized trails. They’ll feel satisfied without trampling the habitat.”
The Aug. 21 article, “Can Hikers, Bikers, Habitat Co-exist?,” incorrectly reported the population of Orange County. The population is 3 million, not 3 billion.