Hope for Solutions at Trails Talk

The Forest Trails Talk panel about mountain biking on illegal trails at UCSC featured panelists from Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz, the university and the Santa Cruz Fire Department and addressed safety, environmental degradation and endangered species.

by Traci Hukill

Jan. 30, 2014—Civil discourse won a victory last night. After panelists at the Forest Trails Talk laid out the problems with the illegal trails network on UCSC's Upper campus—erosion, habitat destruction, an outlaw mentality that alienates potential partners—a dozen of the 195 audience members in attendance lined up at the mics and offered thoughtful responses and solutions. And we're talking about some of the most popular trails in the county, beloved by locals and out-of-towners alike.

Even though UCSC policymakers declined invitations to attend, it seemed at the end of the night that solutions were not only possible, they were probable. (Granted, I'm biased; Hilltromper, along with Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz and Stevenson Residential Life, sponsored the event.)

On the panel were Alex Jones, UCSC Campus Reserve Steward; Will Curtis, captain of the UCSC Mountain Biking Team; Drew Perkins, Trail Officer for MBoSC; Lono Barnes, firefighter with Santa Cruz Fire Department; and Chris Wilmers, director of the Santa Cruz Puma Project. Eric Johnson of Hilltromper moderated. All of them ride, and each made a case for rejecting the status quo, which largely consists of mountain bikers ignoring the trails' illegal status and the university ignoring the mountain bikers in a classic don't-ask-don't-tell arrangement.

Read the results of the survey of mountain bikers at Upper UCSC
Read about the June 2013 opening of the Emma McCrary Trail

Moderator Eric Johnson started off the panel asking audience members to vote for which scenario they preferred: "Option 1: keep the status quo and enforce single-track closure," he said. One hand went up. "Option 2: Keep the status quo so we can ride wherever we want." Maybe a dozen hands went up, tentatively.

"OK, I'm going to try to make this one sound like the most reasonable approach," Johnson warned. "The third option is: Build legal, safe single-track and limit riders to those trails. Who's for that one?" Many hands went up, more than half. "OK, not overwhelming," Johnson said, "but definitely more than the other two." And so the panel began.

Some highlights from the event:

Alex Jones pointed out that ad-hoc trails have left very few places on Upper Campus undisturbed by humans.

"If you look for habitat areas that don’t have a lot of human influence, it's hard to find them," he said. "These trails allow access into core areas—that’s where you find firepits, party sites, tons of trash, folks living out there. I’ve found open buckets of kerosene and car batteries, paint cans. Never mind human waste—a lot. So human influence has infiltrated throughout Upper Campus. We've found probably 2,000 pounds of trash in the last year and a half."

He said erosion is another serious problem.

"We’re not working with exposed bedrock," he said, adding that the sandy loam soil is easily erodible. "Eighty-four percent of the soils mapped on campus have severe erosion potential. The rest are moderate potential."

Jones said mountain bikers disregard his attempts to close problematic trails.

"We’ve been trying to close off feeder trails, brushing them over," he said. "That [brush] will get moved off within 24 hours."

"I’m stoked you showed up," he told the crowd, "and you’re responsible by showing up to talk about this issue, but it’s tricky when people are going around fences. It does feel like a waste of my time sometimes to do something, then it gets undone. It does feel like a game sometimes."

He closed by referencing the historically rancorous relationship between mountain bikers and land managers: "Thank you for letting me come here and not throwing any tomatoes."

MBoSC trails officer Drew Perkins, who spearheaded the building of the Emma McCrary Trail (the first legal trail built in Santa Cruz in many years), agreed that "there are problems with an illegal trail network.

"You as a land manager don’t have any control over where those trails end up, and you can’t integrate and consider resource issues," he said. "For example, if there was a planned legal trail on campus, people could avoid sensitive areas; they could be designed in ways that minimize damage.

"Besides lack of planning, the other problem is, as far as I know it’s worse to be caught out there with a shovel than on your bike. So there's no maintenance.

"If a tree falls down or a puddle forms, people ride around it. So the fact that the trail is not recognized causes the damage to be greater.

"Trails on Upper Campus are relatively sustainable," he added. "Most are contouring trails. There are some bad ones. But it’s a pretty good network in that way."

Perkins was the first to bring up a point that was echoed throughout the evening: "Third problem is it creates a culture of rogue, outlaw mentality in trail users, and it doesn’t invite them to be stewards of the land and feel like members of the outdoor recreation community. It doesn't make them feel like their presence in natural places is valued.

"In Santa Cruz we have a big problem with people ignoring trails that are closed because we have this culture of ‘We can’t ride anywhere legally.' Eighty-seven percent of singletrack is closed. Wilder, Soquel Demo, Nisene Marks are the only places legal to ride.

"It’s gonna take compromise on all sides of the issue, but it's nice to talk about this now, when there's not a lot of emotion or conflict. We can talk about this maturely or rationally and think, 'What are the desired conditions that we can imagine?'

"I think it would be great if we could find ways to improve some of the trails on campus, close some of the ones that are eroding, create small bridges over puddles. And I think the mountain bike community would be more than happy to work with [Campus Natural Reserve] staff. The trouble is if the trails are not recognized as legitimate, there won't be an opportunity to do this."

Chris Wilmers — a UCSC professor, self-professed avid mountain biker and a wildlife biologist, is very familiar with the territory,

"These trails have impacts to streams and wildlife, but as a realist looking at situation, there’s no way we’re talking about enforcing the illegality of those trails. There’s no budget for that on campus. It’s just not gonna happen.

"So the realistic thing that could happen is this nice kind of compromise solution that Drew is talking about: We have some legal trails that are well built and minimize erosion, and we create a culture of legality using fun, well-built trails. And we slowly try to decommission some of these other trails that most of us aren’t riding anyway—because trails have a way of replicating themselves even if they weren’t that fun to ride in the first place."

Wilmers also placed the issue in a much larger context.

"A real strength of Santa Cruz is mountain biking," he pointed out. "Santa Cruz [Bicycles] is here, Ibis is here, Specialized is here. When you look at the world of mountain biking, Santa Cruz really is central to that world. Because of our force as a community in mountain biking, we'll have a strong impact on the culture of biking, not just here in Santa Cruz. That culture will get exported to the rest of the country and maybe the world. How that culture is developed and gets exported is really important.

Wilmers added that UCSC is a complicated partner. "The campus is not gonna be an easy body to move," he said. "I do mountain lion research in the Santa Cruz Mountains; if you're a major landowner between the Pajaro River and San Mateo County, I've worked with you. UC-Santa Cruz is the hardest group to work with, and part of that's because there's not really a central decision-maker."

Will Curtis, captain of the UCSC mountain biking team, gave an inspiring talk about the positive role mountain biking can play in young people's lives.

"There are some negatives that come with mountain biking," he said, "but I want to explain the crazy amount of good it does for the community.

"Mountain biking is what taught me what hard work is, it’s what taught me to pursue my goals, it’s what taught me to live well and treat my body well. I’m doing it now and it’s the reason I’m a human biology major and it’s the reason why I’m at UCSC.

"I ride Upper Campus five days a week and I see people 70 years old and 3 years old. The other day I got passed by a guy with three daughters—they were flying! I know those kids will be fans of the environment throughout their lives. That’s the time to get them.

"As much as I love hiking now and being in nature, I didn’t when I was 10. I liked mountain biking with my dad. To see this not be available to kids in the future would be devastating for me."

Lono Barnes was invited to discuss the safety issues posed by 1,000 riders a week using a system of ad hoc trails. In some parts of the country, unofficial mountain bike trails pose a real danger. At UCSC, as it happens, this is not so much the case.

"I did a one-year firehouse [database] query on mountain bike accidents on campus," Barnes said. "I came up with 18. The majority of those were on legal trails—streets and paved roads."

(Barnes' figure is in line with an email from CalFire's headquarters in Felton in response to a query from Hilltromper: "Our Emergency Command Center is only showing us going to 3 medical calls in that area during 2013," it read.)

"Mountain bikers are tough—they get out and ride home. They take care of themselves. It does not have a huge impact on us, I can tell you that for sure," said Barnes.

"One thing that would make things better for us would be if we labeled those trails. Right now if someone crashes on Sick and Twisted or Magic Carpet or World Cup or Dead Camper, they may have no idea where they are. They’ll call from their cell phone and say, ‘I’m down, I don’t know how to tell you how to get to me.’ So signage would be great.

"I’m a rescue swimmer too. A few years ago the fire department decided to put together a map of beaches that are commonly known but state parks hasn’t named them or whatever. I think we’re gonna develop something like that if we can."

If the five panelists began to strike a (perhaps surprisingly) harmonious chord, it deepened during an hour-long Q&A session.

Jen Karno, who works in the City of Santa Cruz Economic Development Office, pointed out that other communities have solved this problem.

"Camp Tamarancho and China Camp [in Marin] have worked out very effective solutions with having a lot of illegal riding for many years, now turned into legal riding, and having designated trails for people to ride legally. It’s a pay-to-play system—pay a few dollars a day to ride those trails or pay for an annual pass."

Gillian Greensite identified herself as a longtime environmentalist (and had been the one person to vote for strict enforcement at the beginning of the evening).

"I have seen the damage that has been done and I have been extremely depressed at what I see as a lack of regard for the impacts Alex described," she said. "I’d like to reframe: It’s not a problem of illegal trails. It’s the problem of creating illegal trails and then turning that on its head and saying the problem is that they are illegal. There are reasons certain areas deemed to fragile, too habitat-rich, for a sport such as mountain biking. The two uses are not really compatible. Are there areas that are so precious that our own personal sporting life might sometimes have to take a second place?

"The Emma McCrary trail was highly successful and much loved. It has not reduced the illegal use of trails in Pogonip. What are your plans of reaching out to thousands of people who will continue to create illegal trails?"

Drew Perkins responded:

"I’ll speak to one aspect. I started mountain biking in San Luis Obispo. There’s lots of coordination there between users—mountain bikers, hikers, equestrians—and they don’t really have an illegal trail building problem in San Luis Obispo. If that kind of attitude started in Santa Cruz 25 years ago, and State Parks and UCSC saw mountain biking and instead of closing it all [allowed it in some places], we could have had a different thing happen. Illegal trail building demonstrates to me that there’s a need. There’s a huge number of mountain bikers here, and we’re near one of the most populous areas in the world.”

"With BLM and Cemex, I think maybe we can start off on the right foot and have forethought and planning. That can help us."

Will Curtis also replied:

"There is a lack of communication between the mountain bike community and the rest of trail users. … When you say 'stay off this trail,' I don’t think some people know why they’ve been told to do it. When you go to Upper Campus there’s nothing. You see the sign at Wilder about the tiger beetle and then you go to Magic Carpet and Chupacabra, and it’s a worn trail with tons of people riding, and it definitely gives the idea that this is OK, and it’s meant to be like this.

"‘We can give this up because we have a reason to, not ‘We can give this up because some dude told me to.’"

Eric Aldrich, an assistant professor of economics at UCSC, identified himself as a trail-runner and rider.

"If we wanted to have no impact on the land, we would ask hikers and trail runners to leave too. ... A single trail on Upper Campus won't do it. We need a larger system that will be legal."

Another audience member — your reported missed his name — asked Alex Jones if it would be possible for the mountain biking community to volunteer to come to the Reserve and help him close off sensitive trails.

"Maybe we could work with you to figure out a reroute. You've got some area you’re concerned about. If we go out and look at it with you and figure out some way to mitigate that—it might not be perfect, but it might be a step in the right direction."

James Watts drove from Santa Clara to attend the event.

"There are a lot of riders like myself that come over," he said. "The question we have is, we understand the question of the environment but if I takes 20 years to build a legal trail, how does that minimize the damage?"

Drew Perkins responded that he shared Watts' frustration — but had good news to report.

"We’re building a new trail at Soquel Demonstration; construction started today, more or less," he said, drawing a round of applause. "It was two years planning."

Watts seemed unimpressed. "I’ve seen the trails on the other side of the Bay Area. They're not fun. You don't spend two to 10 thousand dollars to go 15 miles per hour."

Steve Ball once again picked up the pragmatic, let's-do-this theme.

"I'm really hopeful," he said. "Let’s look at the maps, let’s see where it makes sense to avoid sensitive habitat and put legal trails in in one, two, five years. It can be done, it can minimize erosion and it can meet at least some, if not all, the demand."

Tim Duane, a UCSC environmental studies professor and expert on the Ohlone Tiger Beetle, closed the evening on another hopeful note.

"The university is about knowledge," he said, "so let’s apply knowledge to the problem. In the past it was believed that if you allowed mountain bikers on certain trails they would crush and kill Ohlone tiger beetles. If you didn’t allow [riders], they’d be fine.

"But I actually found that if mountain bikers rode slowly it still had an impact, but not as much. If mountain bikers were riding quickly [the beetles] didn’t have time to get away. But mountain biking and hiking were the same for the Ohlone tiger beetle—if the bikers rode slowly."

"We surveyed mountain bikers. Half knew about the beetles, half didn’t. We found that if they got some information they showed a greater willingness to slow down on the trail. Maybe we shift it seasonally.

"We export public policy from California," Duane pointed out. "We can export mountain biking culture from Santa Cruz.”

Join a Civinomics workshop where you can propose and vote on solutions to the illegal trails situation at UCSC.
Read a blog post about the Forest Trails Talk by Esther Kim of Civinomics.