What Should the Future Be for Orange County’s Outdoors?

Land at the public Irvine Ranch Open Space in rural Orange County. (Photo by: OC Parks)

Orange County’s conservationists and other advocates have spent decades fighting to preserve thousands of acres of open land for future generations.

Now with most of those battles over, their attention is turning to how to best manage that land and balance the needs of multiple users, such as hikers, joggers, mountain bikers and horseback riders who want to explore local open space.

There are plenty of issues for land managers and the public to address, from extreme mountain bikers crashing into hikers to illegal trails dug through protected wilderness.

“How do you protect these areas in perpetuity so that they’re here for hundreds of years?” said Dave Raetz, deputy director of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. “The challenge is you have so many variations of user groups. … I want people to be partners on the land instead of ‘users.’ They need to be giving back. They need to be able to make compromises.”

Activists are bringing all the user groups and land managers together to hash out a path forward, forming the Safe Trails Coalition, which met for the first time last month.

The meeting at the Duck Club in Irvine, which was sponsored by Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, brought together dozens of representatives of the various user groups, including hiking advocates, land managers and emergency responders.

And they’re getting support from at least one high-ranking county official.

Shawn Nelson, was as chairman of the county Board of Supervisors has spearheaded a push to add bike lanes in North Orange County, is working to establish an upcoming countywide summit on open space.

At last month’s meeting, a top concern among many activists was risks to hikers by aggressive mountain bikers.

“There are certain trails that are known for mountain bikes, and we avoid them like the plague,” said Suki Reed, president of the OC Hiking Club.

“You will get wiped out if you go on those trails, I’m afraid to say,” she said, adding that the leaders of mountain bike groups must make sure their colleagues ride safely.

One idea to help prevent crashes was to make bike bells available on trails, allowing cyclists to of their approach. Another was to set up a dedicated area for extreme mountain bikers.

Others spoke about a lack of trail name signs in certain areas to inform people of which trail they’re on and about Google Maps providing different names for trails than the actual trail names used on the ground.

As hiking and biking become more popular, trails are becoming more crowded.

Trail overuse in the Puente Hills area of eastern Los Angeles County has reached the point that managers are considering shutting down trails at certain times of day or even closing them altogether.

Groups organized through Meetup.com are presenting unique challenges, like bringing 100 cars all at once to a 20-car lot, officials added.

One suggestion for trail maintenance was to invite people to submit “trail logs” after they use a trail. They would give direct feedback, generally by email, to land managers about obstacles, hazards, illegal trails and other issues they encountered.

That approach was put in place for areas overseen by the Puente Hills Habitat Preservation Authority.

Some suggested placing more trash bins on trails so hikers and joggers could drop off their personal trash bags.

Another issue raised by activists was problems with trail connections in North Orange County, particularly in Brea and Yorba Linda, where some trails are blocked in certain areas.

Activists also questioned why no new county trails have been built in recent years. They’re considering a push to have county supervisors update their trails master plan, which hasn’t had an update since the early 1990s.

Trails are said to cost about $250,000 to $1 million per mile without easements. Funding should be available through developer fees as well as grants from organizations like the Trust for Public Lands, activists said.

But many North Orange County cities don’t negotiate effectively for open space when they approve new housing, despite a state law, the Quimby Act, which allows cities to require that developers set aside land or money for parks and open space.

Activists pointed to Orange Park Acres Association ,which oversees the trail system in that unincorporated equestrian neighborhood, as a model for building and maintaining trails.

Some activists spoke of elevating the value of trails to those of parks. They urged people to think of trails as “linear parks,” which can be a valuable place for urban residents to exercise and relieve stress.

One example cited by activists is a “stunning” trail in Culver City that was built along an abandoned railroad right-of-way through city neighborhoods.

Others pointed to a unique traffic-relief approach in Portland, Ore.: a network of inner-city trails for cyclists and pedestrians.

The committee plans to meet regularly to discuss various issues of open space as they arise.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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