I’m a geographer by training so if someone pulls out a map, of course I want to look at it. In fact, when I hike I carry extra maps for those individuals that ask “where am I?” Not only do I show them “where they are,” but then I give them the map. Over the last several years, I’ve logged several hundred miles—mostly on the trails in our Orange County parks, but sometimes I’m lucky enough to backpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s during these adventures that I’ve seen such a dramatic change in the landscape in my “home park”— Chino Hills State Park.
A single track trail for example, Easy Street, is marked on the State Park map and with signage as being available for hikers only. That same path is now nearly five feet wide and regularly used by mountain bikers with rocks literally tagged in orange paint for riders to watch out for. And, there are now side trails stemming off it to other areas too—areas where trails never existed before. A few months ago, while on Easy Street and across the canyon from me, I watched hikers practically crawling up the side of a very steep hill—a hill where there is no trail on the map or otherwise. It appears they’d mistaken a wildlife trail for a hiking trail.
Elsewhere in the Park, equestrians have created new paths from their stabling areas in adjacent neighborhoods—making it difficult to know which trail is actually the one on the map. The Park is getting crisscrossed with new trails.
To make things even tougher for our parklands, the drought has made it nearly impossible for any plants to recover after someone has stepped on them even just once—let alone repeated trampling. What I have witnessed at Chino Hills State Park, is just one example of what is happening to so many of our Southern California parklands.
For a long time, I’ve been working with decision makers, agencies, and land managers to create more parks in and around Orange County. Some of these
lands are simply being added to our existing park systems, while others have additional protections because they are mitigation for some impact elsewhere. It’s because of my involvement in creating and using parks that I am now coordinating the Safe Trails Coalition.
The Coalition was formed by five area non-profits: Audubon California, Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, Laguna Canyon Foundation, Sea and Sage Audubon, and Sierra Club. Together these organizations are working to find a balance between recreational uses and resource protection. In fact, many of these organizations have fought very hard over the last several decades to keep our most prized lands from being converted to cookie cutter houses and roadways. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears have been invested to keep the bulldozers away and now that same investment is getting torn up by foot, tire, and hoof.
For the last 18 months, the Coalition has been coordinating with area land managers to understand what costs they are absorbing in their budgets associated with off trail use—the type of inappropriate use I’ve described above—and the resulting management tasks (i.e. restoration work). Working with 10 land managers, at all levels (local, regional, state, federal and conservancies) the Coalition just released information outlining how off trail use ultimately costs the public because of the need (sometimes legal requirement) to restore and increase management of the land. Download a one-page version of the factsheet.
Unbeknownst to many of the visitors to our parks, there are underlying agreements that dictate how our parklands must be stewarded over the long term. In particular, sensitive areas have the highest level of protection, and agencies, tasked with the defense of threatened or endangered plants or animals, step in to ensure that protection is maintained.
If it isn’t, restoration and management tasks need to remedy the situation. This can be a costly endeavor and could also result in less access to those parklands. Based on the research the Coalition did, this restoration can be as high as $160,000 per acre in the most sensitive environments and only if all the conditions are right (slope, topography, access to water, weather, etc.). These types of impacts also may require land managers to increase patrols, signage, and/or volunteer coordination to watch over these impacted areas. All of these efforts require more time and money.
Volunteers, non-profits, and consultants are all called in to assist land managers when trail and restoration work needs to be done. I’m grateful to see these partnerships forming and that regular work parties are hosted to improve our parks and trails, but the destruction must cease in order for these work parties to make any meaningful progress on restoration.
While our land managers utilize their staffing and financial resources to the best of their abilities—when off trail use occurs it digs into their existing work and priorities. Every year, our land managers sit down and outline how they will operate and maintain the parks for the next 12 months. When a surprise happens—a new trail through sensitive habitat—resources need to be diverted to fix the problem. It’s just like when termites paid my house a visit over the summer—I wasn’t expecting it, but I needed to fix the problem right away or risk my investment. All but one of the land managers in the survey is funded by our tax dollars.
By creating unauthorized, illegal or “social” trails as they are all called, taxpayers pay the tab.
The Safe Trails Coalition has a more detailed analysis available for those that are interested in understanding the study more in depth. Armed with more information, “be a part of the solution,” is now the unofficial motto of the Coalition since this study has been released. Five simple steps you can take to help: Use official park maps. Stay on the trail. Leave no trace. Be responsible. Self police. Why? These modest actions save us all money in the long run.
Melanie Schlotterbeck is the Green Vision Coordinator for FHBP. In that position she manages multiple conservation coalitions and updates the Green Vision Map. For the last decade she has worked closely with the Orange County Transportation Authority on its Environmental Mitigation Program.
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