Tex Haines considers the trails and hills behind his Laguna Canyon home to be his church.
After years of hiking, the Victoria Skimboards co-founder has developed a keen eye capable of spotting a California whipsnake slithering through tall grass and a patch of pesky poison oak shrouded in scrub. He’s also noticed an uptick in the amount of illegal excavation and modifications to Telonics Trail, a popular downhill chute among mountain bikers.
“I go up there to get close to nature and these guys are spoiling it needlessly,” Haines said. “I don’t understand how anyone can’t understand that this belongs to all of us.”
During a hike of the Telonics Trail on Tuesday, the Independent observed multiple modifications including jumps, hillside digging to create turns, plastic traction pads, water-channeling culverts, and shaved sandstone boulders. These types of modifications to public lands need to be approved by the California Coastal Commission because they may create significant environmental impacts.
However, the reality is that mountain bikers have modified this trail for 30 years because it runs through several jurisdictions, including OC Parks, Laguna Beach, the Laguna Beach County Water District, and private landowners. OC park rangers are charged with enforcing laws in Aliso and Wood Canyons regional parks but as more people pursue outdoor recreation after self-isolating at home due to the coronavirus, it’s unclear how illegal trail modifications stack up on their list of priorities.
“The pandemic has not impacted park rangers’ ability to be out in the field enforcing laws,” OC Parks spokesperson Marisa O’Neil wrote in an email. “Park Rangers continue to work their normal work schedules as well as overtime, as appropriate.”
Rangers are also tasked with medical aids, maintenance, administrative functions, and resource management. One to four park rangers are typically available to respond to Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, depending on the situation, O’Neil wrote in an email.
OC Parks reported its investigating one case of maintenance activity on an unauthorized trail near Big Bend off Laguna Canyon Road.
Laguna Beach police officers respond to open space in areas adjacent to regional parks when they received emergency calls for service but don’t actively patrol there.
Haines acknowledges that there are practical and legal limits to policing a wilderness area with a patchwork of agencies employing limited manpower. But the result is that environmental damage caused by mostly unchecked mountain bikers in pursuit of an adrenaline rush could have long-term consequences, including slope instability.
“They’re going at it with a vengeance because they’re taking advantage of everyone staying at home,” Haines said.
Although he was unable to name individuals, Haines believes that a group of local mountain bikers named the Laguna RADS is largely responsible for the work happening on the work on the Telonics Trail.
“If their mothers knew about it they’d tear their heads off and their neighbors wouldn’t talk to them,” Haines said.
Hans Rey, a co-founder of the Laguna RADS, said in a phone interview Wednesday that Haines’ accusations about the mountain bike group are without merit.
“It’s easy to point the finger at the RADS because they rode them years ago,” Rey said. “There are thousands of people riding this trail. People come from Europe.”
He also pointed out that the average age of the RADS members is 55 or 60 and a lot of them aren’t interested in the jumping required by the Telonics trail. Rey added that he doesn’t agree with the practice of laying plastic traction pads on trails and that RADS members have been active in trying to educate visiting mountain bikers who break the rules.
Rey added that it’s unfortunate that a small group of hikers has perpetuated a negative stereotype of mountain bikers.
“The squeaky wheel often gets the oil and a lot of mountain bikers would ask why there isn’t one [exclusive] bike trail.”
Steve Larson, president of SHARE Mountain Bike Club, said his organization has been clear with fellow bikers they shouldn’t do work on land that they don’t have permission to be on.
“We’ve done what we can to educate people that we need to share the trail and be responsible,” Larson said. “Just like surfing waves, a lot of people are territorial.”
Larson added that park rangers have the ability to write tickets and confiscate bikes if they see people illegally modifying trails.
“I’m not sure what they can do when it leaves their property,” Larson said.
Even though Haines said he’s personally talked to park rangers about this issue, the agency they’re employed by said they’ve received no complaints by Laguna Beach residents that it’s shirking its responsibility to protect the environment.
“OC Parks takes very seriously its role as stewards of County parks and open space and we are not aware of any accusations by Laguna Beach residents indicating that OC Parks is neglecting that responsibility,” O’Neil wrote in an email.