San Vicente Redwoods Access Plan: Round 1

The draft access plan for San Vicente Redwoods lays out plans for extensive mountain biking, hiking and equestrian trails—and a lot fewer dog-friendly paths than you might think.

by Traci Hukill

Sept. 5, 2014—Sometime in the next 10 years, you'll be able to hike, bike or ride a horse down a 12-mile (16 if by bike) skyline-to-sea trail in San Vicente Redwoods that begins at Empire Grade and ends at Coast Dairies. So proposes the first draft of the San Vicente Redwoods Public Access Plan, posted today by Land Trust of Santa Cruz County on its new website.

The plan hints at serious fun: 16.5 miles of trail just for hikers and equestrians and 21.5 miles of trail dedicated to mountain bikers (with "hiking allowed but discouraged"). About 1.5 miles of the hiker/equestrian trail near the proposed parking lot on Empire Grade will be open to dogs on leash. A second parking lot, if necessary, would also be located on Empire Grade. At the isolated 373-acre Laguna parcel, a half-mile hiking and equestrian trail will link up with paths in the neighboring Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve.

"We are thrilled to provide the opportunity for the community to access such a vast landscape," says Bryan Largay, conservation manager for Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and the point man for the access plan. "The whole flank of Ben Lomond Mountain, from the high point to the ocean—that's pretty exciting." (Find maps here.)

Purpose-Built Trails in San Vicente Redwoods

Dedicated trails (those restricted by activity) are key to this 10-year plan, which is divided into two phases. During the first three years, while the $2-$4 million project ramps up, hikers, equestrians, dog walkers and mountain bikers will share some 3.5 miles of multi-use road clustered near the Empire Grade parking lot. But after that, during the next seven years, trail construction will proceed on dedicated (sometimes called "separate-use" or "purpose-built") trails. Notably, the skyline-to-sea route, also called the through-trail, will involve 10 miles of new mountain biking singletrack that more or less parallels the hiking/equestrian route.

"To the best of our ability, we wanted to increase the likelihood that people would have a nice experience when out on the trails," Largay says. "We do have 8,000 acres to work with here, so it seemed feasible that we could have parallel trails."

The emphasis on dedicated trails comports with the results of the 2,300-plus surveys conducted by the Land Trust, which is handling the recreational access plan on behalf of the environmental consortium that purchased the property in 2011. Almost half of survey respondents (48%) listed "Trail Conflicts" among their concerns, along with illegal uses and fire risk. Conflicts between hikers and bikers, bikers and equestrians and equestrians and dogs were the primary concerns.

Not Allowed in San Vicente Redwoods!

For San Vicente–watchers, the draft plan is as notable for what it omits as for what it includes on this large swath of private land. By the time a community meeting rolled around on March 26, the Land Trust was already saying that some activities were just basically nonstarters for what was at that point still known as the Cemex property: four-wheeling, dirt biking, car camping, hunting, fishing, rock climbing and anything involving campfires.

That still left a lot of activities on the table, and at the meeting speakers proposed, among other things, off-leash dog access, campstove-only backpacking, disc golf, mushroom harvesting and birding areas. None of those is mentioned in the plan, save harvesting, which would require a permit and fee. (Birders might be glad to notice, though, that among the stated recreational goals and policies is this: "Allow for quiet enjoyment of nature.")

The proposed access areas steer well clear of neighbors and inholdings, the working forests where timber harvest will happen and the quarry in the southeastern part of the property, a bottleneck for mountain lions moving through the area. Parking is restricted to Empire Grade, with no parking on Bonny Doon Road or on Warranella Road, which snakes up through the property starting at Highway 1. The parking situation leads one to hope (or suspect) that Coast Dairies, now owned by the BLM and undergoing its own access planning process, will construct a parking area close to the coast that San Vicente Redwoods visitors can use.

Of Dogs, Mountain Lions and Trails

Hikers, bikers and equestrians will likely be pleased by the draft plan, but dog owners are another matter. That dogs, even on-leash, are limited to just 1.5 miles of trails in the park may come as a surprise—especially when 57% of survey respondents said they favored having leashed dogs in the park. That's more than favored mountain biking (46%) and almost as many as supported horseback riding (58%).

Largay says it came down to a common enough dynamic: dogs chase cats.

"One of the primary conservation values for the property is large wildlife habitat and movement corridors," he says. "And in our interviews with experts we talked a lot with mountain lion experts, and in their assessment the only activity we posed that would potentially impact mountain lions would be having dogs on the property.

"They said mountain lions have a predator/prey relationship with wolves and coyotes that is very ingrained in their behavior, where wolves and coyote in packs will hunt and kill mountain lions, and mountains lions are very affected by the presence of canines. So that was very surprising to us."

Largay notes that proposed trail corridors in the plan avoid mountain lion denning areas, but that it was "almost impossible" to avoid the areas through which mountain lions roam. "The hikers and mountain bikers are actually going through prime mountain lion habitat." He adds, "It turns out a lot of our state parks do too."

The San Vicente Access Final Draft

Though the document is just a draft—the public will get a chance to weigh in on it at a Sept. 10 meeting at Hotel Paradox—it represents the midpoint of a pretty thorough process to date. Since Land Trust started working on the access plan in October 2013, it's gathered the aforementioned 2300 surveys, interviewed 190 folks and groups likely to be affected by public access and held stakeholder meetings with educational and recreational leaders. And then of course there was the March meeting, attended by some 300 people.

Read about early survey results in The Dog and Pony Show.

At the Sept. 10 meeting, and until Oct. 10, the Land Trust will be gathering public comments on the plan with an eye toward drawing up a final plan by the end of 2014. At that point Santa Cruz County will review it, and the California Environmental Quality Act process will begin. If all goes very smoothly, bikers, hikers and equestrians could be exploring the multi-use trails as soon as fall 2015—though summer 2016 might be more likely.

Who Pays for San Vicente Redwoods Access?

Recreational access for the SVR is not cheap. The capital improvement part of the project—building new trails, repurposing old trails and roads, installing signage, benches, restrooms, water fountains and picnic areas—that all costs money. The cost of Phase II is pegged at $2-$4 million.

Then there's running it—keeping trails safe and maintained, clearing culverts, doing patrols to keep the pyromaniacs and pot farmers out. At buildout, annual operating costs are expected to run $400,000-$550,000 to pay for three or four staffers, plus contracted security services. That could be offset by anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 in annual revenue from permits for parking, commercial uses and the like (think eco tours and mushroom harvesting). That leaves a few hundred thousand dollars of expenses to cover each year.

So who pays? Ownership of the land is set to remain with Sempervirens Fund and Peninsula Open Space Trust, which together hold the deed. Save The Redwoods League will hold the conservation easement, and Land Trust will take the role of public access manager. Are they on the hook?

"That's a huge issue," says Largay. "There's some opportunity to offset those costs substantially through trained volunteers. Examples that come easily to mind are collaborating with Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz to build trails and collaborating with Santa Cruz Horsemen's Association to patrol trails."

The plan suggests that offsets through such partnerships could save as much as $130,000 a year. The San Vicente Redwoods ownership group will be thinking through the details, though, and relying on commitments rather than leaping and hoping the volunteers show up.

"We do not intend to open portions of the property for use until we have a clear strategy with all the kinks worked out on how we're going to cover those operation costs," says Largay. "So if that means we never open that long Through Trail, then that's what it means.

"In a lot of ways it's up to us—the big 'us' of the Santa Cruz County community members—to determine just how far we go with this thing."

The San Vicente Redwoods Access Community Meeting is Wednesday, Sept. 10, 6:30-9:30pm at Hotel Paradox, 611 Ocean St, Santa Cruz. Free, but please register here. The Land Trust is accepting comments on the access plan through Oct. 10; send them to