Mountain Biking

Mountain Bike Access Issues Flaring Up in San Diego County –

Trouble in Paradise

The San Diego Union Tribune posted a story about the State Fish and Wildlife’s escalated efforts to keep mountain bike riders out of an ecological reserve in the city of Carlsbad in North San Diego County. Mountain bikers frequented the property, along with hikers and equestrians long before the site was passed into government jurisdiction as a negotiated land swap in exchange for permission to build a large development nearby.

At some point, however, Fish and Wildlife authorities posted signs banning bikes and horses – warnings which were largely ignored after park users realized that, for years, the agency rarely bothered to visit the 473 acre site in the coastal hills. There’s a new sheriff in town, apparently, and now the agency is making a show of force with brand new trucks and officers who are issuing both warnings and tickets to mountain bikers who cross the line.

Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve

Areas in yellow mark parkland and reserves controlled by California Fish and Wildlife.

Land swaps such as the one that became the Carlsbad Ecological Reserve, have created most of the open space and wildland parks in Southern California. The puzzle-piece acquisitions have created problems, though, especially in San Diego County, where adjoining public lands are policed by a number of different state, federal, city, county, and private non-profit management authorities who are often at odds with each other. Trail access decisions, area closures, and environmental restrictions are subject to the whims of whichever land managers are flexing their muscles that month, which often negates lengthily negotiations between stakeholders. Fish and Wildlife’s decision to target mountain bikers exclusively is one reason why mountain bike groups like the San Diego Mountain Biking Association have contested the posted rules. There is little scientific ground to support banning cyclists in the name of habitat and wildlife preservation from trails open to other public user groups.

Not an Isolated Incident

A number of similar conflicts have gone poorly for mountain bike riders here. Anderson trails in East County were slashed from one of the area’s best technical riding zones to a single loop, Tunnel trails near the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve were restricted to a single mountain bike route after a lengthily battle, and a few miles away, the popular Ted Williams gravity zone was recently halved by California Fish and Wildlife, one of three authorities who manage the land there. Those losses have been offset somewhat by the construction of new trails nearby, some of which are gravity trails currently under construction.

The mountain bike community has not been entirely helpful. A longer rainy season has softened the hard clay soil and unauthorized building has escalated to a new level. Unlike heavily forested areas which mask the visual impact of most trails, diggers and subsequent trail erosion typically leave permanent visible scars on Southern California’s low scrub and rocky landscape.

It is doubtful that bird watchers appreciate the subtle contours of a pro-sized jump line, or that land managers look fondly on a new trail that meanders down a hillside only ten meters to the left of the one that popped up last year. Close proximity of large suburban developments to parklands is the ultimate digger bait, and so far efforts by both land managers and mountain bike stakeholder groups to control the quality and number of trails popping up have not been very fruitful.

The Domino Effect

Why should anyone else worry about Southern California’s mountain bike woes? It should be no secret that mountain bike compatibility and unauthorized trail building issues are contentious in many parts of the United States and elsewhere. Government and social agencies, however, are reluctant to act alone, especially when faced with a polarized constituency. When an agency finally musters the seeds to take action, like closing down a popular gravity zone, all eyes will be quietly watching to see how it goes down.

If California Fish and Wildlife prevails and the mountain bike community quietly accepts their fate at the Carlsbad Ecological Reserve, agencies who are facing similar conflicts will most likely cite the success and follow suit. Conspicuous conflict resolutions thus create a domino effect. Sometimes the ramifications are positive, but in this case, a decisive loss would most likely empower further closures across California and beyond.

Read the story by Deborah Sullivan Brennan in the San Diego Union-Tribune