Mountain biking is on the rise locally, and both trail users and environmentalists are concerned about threats to sustainability and safety. The resources of OC Parks, which has responsibility for park preservation, have not kept pace, despite the steady trek of bikers heading to wilderness trails from throughout the world.
“On the grand scale, when it comes to art, we are nothing to Europeans, but to mountain bikers, Laguna Beach is the Louvre,” says local Hans Rey, a Hall of Fame biker, and advocate for the sport, who migrated here in 1990 to take advantage of the thrill of riding in the 20,000-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
Responsibility for managing the park, dedicated in 1993 and mostly owned by the city of Laguna Beach, rests with county officials. Park Ranger Barbara Norton, aided by the park support organization Laguna Canyon Foundation, reports that her team has been reviewing the entire trail system holistically to ensure safe use and environmental sensitivity. However, given intensive use by hikers as well as bikers, time is not on their side.
County spending for preservation, which has been flat for several years, may be another casualty of California’s 1978 Proposition 13, which caps annual appreciation of property taxes, an important revenue source. There is no expectation of an increase in spending for parks, says spokeswoman Marisa O’Neil. The total county budget at $5.447 billion today matches the budget of 2010, but over the years has experienced the spikes and declines of a mountain trail.
“Keep in mind that Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is one of many managed by OC Parks, which oversees 60,000 acres of parks and open space in Orange County. It’s important that we carefully balance this stewardship with providing outdoor recreational opportunities and amenities for visitors, and that is always an ongoing process,” O’Neil says.
OC Parks’ current priorities include considering preservation at Peters Canyon Regional Park in Orange and authorizing in the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park the Lizard trail, which has taken longer than expected because of approvals required by many agencies. The one-mile trail from Laurel Canyon to Boomer Ridge, long favored by bikers but not originally “authorized,” will be the first new trail to be blessed since the park was established.
The recent launch of a student racing team at Thurston Middle School is further evidence of the appeal of the sport, and Director Tony Zentil, a 15-year biker, sees this as an opportunity to educate the next generation on sustainable trail use.
“If we don’t learn to be smart using our trails, we’re going to lose our trails,” Zentil says.
Heeding the call of enthusiasts, a bicycle park may be added to the county’s mix. With a $10,000 grant from the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) matched by OC Parks, a concept plan has been initiated for 10-acres of trails on the grounds of the Ted Craig Regional Park in Fullerton.
Purpose-built parks use sustainable materials and offer a diversity of experiences for all skill levels. There are 100s across the country, says IMBA spokesman Mark Eller. The 80-mile Mammoth Park, for example, the first bike park in the country, added seven trails in recent years that serve bikers of all skill levels. However the park is open only in summer.
“If someone wants to catch big air with more thrills, bike parks are the best place, although there is always demand for open-space trails,” Eller says.
The establishment of bike parks locally is certainly many years away, while trail preservation seems stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.
Rob Zur Schmiede, former Laguna Beach Planning Commissioner and the newest member of the City Council, says he would consider city involvement. “If we’ve got a utilization issue, we should address it,” he says. “We may have to craft new policies.”
Zur Schmiede says he would start with an evaluation of use and engage the city’s sustainability and environmental committee.
And what of the economic impact of mountain biking tourism?
“Bikers stay here, they rent bikes, they eat, they shop,” Rey says.
Nevertheless, no marketing efforts have been targeted to bikers, says Ashley Johnson, marketing director for Visit Laguna Beach, under contract as the city’s tourism promoter. Johnson says advertising is directed to the general outdoor recreation and adventure traveler and their Travel Info app has a “hiking/biking” section under “Things to Do.”
Trail maps are also posted on the Laguna Beach city website, and Laguna Cyclery plans to distribute this spring, through the visitor’s center, a brochure which includes information about trails and is also adding an enhanced GPS system to its rentals.
With or without maps, bikers already seem to know the path to Laguna Beach, threatening the open space while making mountain biking as integral to the local culture as painter palettes and surfboards.
Randy Kraft is a freelance writer and novelist, a former reporter and columnist for the Indy, and book reviewer at the OC BookBlog: www.ocinsite.com.