State wildlife officials are shutting down a spiderweb of bike trails that weave across Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve, and warning bikers to stay out, in a campaign to stop illegal use of the sensitive property.
Their actions began last week, and are continuing as state game wardens patrol the site for mountain biking, vandalism and off-leash dogs. Since Saturday, wardens have issued two tickets and nearly 200 warnings to users who don’t know or don’t follow the site’s rules.
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The ramped-up enforcement results from a years-long standoff between wildlife officials and mountain bikers over use of the site, said Ed Pert, manager of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, South Coast Region. Mountain bikers have carved trails across the slopes, moved boulders to build jumps, and torn down signs and barricades meant to keep out cyclists.
“We’ve been out there for years and years telling people this is illegal,” Pert said. “They just don’t want to hear it.”
Last weekend, a team of wardens patrolled key trailheads at the reserve, directing cyclists off the property. Members of the San Diego Mountain Biking Association showed up in force to stake their claim, arguing for continued access, said Wildlife Officer April Esconde. Wardens kept watch throughout the week, informing the public of the bike restrictions. On Thursday morning, Esconde stopped a mountain biker on a path near the west side of the preserve.
“You’re not allowed to ride here,” she warned him.
“Oh no, when did that start?” asked the man, who did not give his name. “I totally respect the rules and regulations, but it’s a bummer, because I don’t have anywhere to ride anymore.”
The tug-of-war over the Carlsbad reserve illustrates the problems with managing open space in urban areas such as San Diego, where undeveloped land is diminishing, while the number of people competing for that space is rising. The natural terrain that’s essential to native plants and animals is also attractive to people seeking outdoor experiences. So when developers purchase conservation land as mitigation for building on other parcels, there are conflicting expectations for what should be allowed there.
“Wildlife agencies and environmental groups work very hard during the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) process to make sure we get adequate offset for the projects,” Pert said. “As soon as that gets set aside, it gets inundated by recreational users. And that’s very frustrating for people who protect wildlife.”
Ben Stone, trails coordinator for the San Diego Mountain Biking Association, maintains that those land acquisitions should include public use by hikers, mountain bikers and others.
“I think when most people hear open space, they assume there’s a component of it that’s open to the public,” he said.
The enforcement campaign in Carlsbad shines light not only on that preserve, but also on the viability of habitat conservation plans, which seek to balance construction of homes and roads, with a commitment to preserve natural resources. It’s a challenge that plays out in numerous areas of San Diego and California.
“This is a real test for us, to say, will this work?” Pert said. “If we can’t get people to stay off of an area, or stop pulling out signs, then we really need to rethink that whole model.”
Wild lands in the city
The 473-acre reserve, located behind Sage Creek High School , was established in 2000 as a conservation bank to offset environmental impacts of nearby home developments. Its brushy hills are habitat for native species including the California gnatcatcher, a federally threatened songbird, and thread-leaved Brodiaea, a purple-flowering plant listed as endangered in California.
Quail, hawks and deer use the site, along with smaller creatures, said Gabriel Penaflor, who manages the site and nine other reserves in North County. On Thursday, a tarantula and caterpillars crawled across the trails, while white butterflies flitted overhead.
Hikers and runners can visit the preserve and leashed dogs are permitted, but bicycles and horses aren’t allowed. Wildlife officials say those restrictions are necessary to lighten the human footprint on the land. Mountain bikers used the site before it became a reserve, however, and feel they’re entitled to continued access, alongside hikers.
“There were mountain bike trails out there when they bought it,” Stone said. “They didn’t take that into consideration.”
A wild ride
It would be difficult for anyone visiting the site now not to take the trails into consideration now, though. Scores of them criss-cross the slopes, with some running parallel, just a few few feet apart, or featuring jumps across intersecting trails. Erosion has chiseled deep ruts on some routes, and from an aerial view, they appear as fissures on the landscape.
The speed and volume of traffic also make mountain bikers hard to ignore, officials said. People on foot risk collisions with cyclists, Pert said, so some stay away because of safety concerns. Illegal mountain biking, he said, is crowding out legal use of the site.
Gary Murphy, head coach for the north county coastal team of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, said, however, that students from adjacent Sage Creek High and other local schools should be able to ride trails through their own neighborhood.
“I want my kids and my friends’ kids to be able to go out and ride in dirt,” Murphy said. “Because there’s no more dirt left. It’s all concrete.”
Pert points out that the land was purchased for wildlife conservation, not recreation. Arguing that they should be able to ride in the reserve because they have traditionally done so is like claiming they should be allowed to ride across a nearby golf course, or in the backyards of neighboring homes, since those used to be open space as well, he said.
Instead, he said, there need to be other places open for mountain biking, or other ways of incorporating outdoor recreation into plans for new construction. In addition, he said, developers who pay for mitigation may also have to fund ongoing enforcement of the properties, along with education about their ecological value.
Diane Nygard, president of Preserve Calavera, a local conservation group, said regulators and environmentalists have suggested other places for bike trails, including Veterans Memorial Park in Carlsbad, and El Corazon, a stretch of city-owned property in Oceanside. They also point out that mountain bikers are allowed to ride on city-owned property near Lake Calavera in Carlsbad.
Stone said those sites aren’t sufficient, and called on state officials to reach a compromise plan on the Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve.
“They keep coming back and saying ,’Ed you have to find a compromise’” about bike trails in the reserve, Pert said. “I say, I can’t make a compromise because it’s illegal.”
Trails and tribulations
If there’s one thing the two sides can agree on, it’s the determination of mountain bikers to build trails in their desired locations. Stone argues that their persistence is fueled by efforts to ban them.
“The failure to designate a network of well-designed and easily accessible trails that avoid the most sensitive habitats on site have led to the haphazard patchwork of trails found at (Carlsbad Highland Ecological Reserve) today,” the Mountain Biking Association wrote in a statement.
Pert and other wildlife experts, however, doubt that legalizing bike trails would dampen riders’ industrious efforts to construct new ones.
“From our experience, when mountain bikers are allowed on a trail, they just build new trails,” he said.
As Esconde patrolled the reserve Thursday morning, she noted the challenge of policing these remaining islands of natural land.
“It’s a draw, because it’s so beautiful that everyone wants to come here,” she said.
“Yeah, they’re loving it to death right now,” Penaflor, the reserve manager, said.