Sunday, January 15, 2006

MBOSC Meeting: Gray Whale Status

On Wed Jan 11, 2006 we had a meeting with Kirk Lingenfelter (Sector Superintendent, Pajaro Coast Sector, CA State Parks) and Joseph Connors (Supervising Ranger, Wilder Ranch, CA SP). The topic of discussion was about opening the Gray Whale trails for public use.

Here are the minute from the meeting and a presentation of the current issues. Fact checking is welcome.


Daryl, Mark, Kirk, Joseph, Rich, Noel, Elayna, Harvey

Gray Whale Status

The Gray Whale trails issue causes grief when ever it's presented internally to a State Parks (SP) official. The file is so large, the issues are so complicated and its difficult to find a champion for this cause within SP.

Kirk and Joe had a meeting with Victor Roth (Staff Park and Recreation Specialist) and Chris Spohrer (Resource Ecologist) concerning the Gray Whale trails issue. Items for discussion included: where they left it, what they know and what are the current issues.

The process to open the trails stopped at the end of 2001. State Parks submitted the trail proposal to the California Coastal Commission (CCC) . The CCC issued a response to SP - who have yet to respond. More details about the proposal and response can be read in a different post.

The biggest concern is the requirements from California Coastal Commission (CCC, State) which were driven by Fish and Game (F&G, State) and Fish and Wildlife (F&W, Fed) concerns over the listed and endangered species in Gray Whale. These concerns are the basis for the 100 Ft biotic studies request from the CCC. Satisfying 3 government agencies is a tall order for a resource constrained organization like CA State Parks.

The public works project plan (PWP) which was submitted predicated a general plan (GP). There is no general plan for Gray Whale but if there was then the process to open the trails would be easier. A GP is quite an expensive and time consuming affair. A very rough estimate could be about $500K and two years. Also, the plan would have to run the gauntlet of a public process and we know there is a lot of opposition to opening the trails.

After talking with some other people who are familiar with trail plans, 100 Ft biotic studies are not unreasonable. However, 100 Ft studies are new to the North Sector Santa Cruz area. There were some studies done around the time of the Gray Whale acquisition but they were incomplete and were only done to 50 Ft.

The bottom line is that there are seemingly insurmountable hurdles in opening up these trails. State Parks doesn't have the stamina or the resources to open these trails. I don't blame them. The biotic studies requirement would be very expensive to complete and there is a lot of local opposition to opening them from hard core wilderness advocates and environmentalists. The Nisene Marks suit demonstrated that.

State Parks can better utilize their scarce resources to projects which add a lot of value and can demonstrate results. The Gray Whale trails project would require a lot of additional resources a and a champion to drive it internally. After that level of commitment, there is still no guarantee that the trails will be opened.

On a Happier Note

Meeting with State Parks demonstrated the good will shared between MBOSC and CA State Parks. This reengagement will lead to a productive and mutually beneficial relationship. State Parks are willing to help open new trails in Wilder Ranch. There are also some oportunities for creating new alignments to improve existing trails in Nisene Marks.

MBOSC and California State Parks are committed to cooperative efforts to promote mountain biking at Santa Cruz area State Parks, as well as educating all trail user groups on trail etiquette and sustainable use via special events (Take a Kid MTBing Day, Carrot Fest, a possible spring event, etc) and volunteer trail work.

Kirk and Joe would like to thank all trail working volunteers. There are 252 miles of trail in Santa Cruz county that has to be maintained by SP. All the trail work in Wilder Ranch and Nisene has been maintained by volunteers so it's not a burden on SP resources.

Future Directions

All is not lost. The barriers are pretty high to open the trails but not impossible.

SP needs resources (money) to move forward. They got whacked in the last State budget. Perhaps a seed of $100K can pay for a part time resource ecologist position to catalog and address the requirements from CCC, et al. Perhaps some money from a government grant or private donors can help pay to get tha general plan started for Gray Whale. Funding for the Nisene Marks general plan was seeded by donation.

The good news is that the resource department was active in the Wilder/Gray Whale area over the past several years. They have a database of activity and species which may be used as a basis for future studies.

Mountain biking is still perceived as "evil" from the environmental community. This tends to bite us in the public review process in which angry hikers attack mountain bikers as a group for anecdotal incidents of user conflict and the perception of trashing the environment. As mountain bikers, we know that we are environmentally aware and concerned. We really do have the same values as other environmental groups like the Sierra Club. As a user group we need to alter the public perception of our sport to illustrate our environmental credentials.

The lack of progress in Gray Whale doesn't mean that SP doesn't want to open trails. There may be opportunities for opening new trails in Wilder Ranch and Nisene Marks. We should consider trying to re-open Deja Vu - which is a nice single track diversion off Eucalyptus Loop. Deja Vu was closed around 2000.

Recently, a new "Fire Break" was created near Deja Vu from Eucalyptus Loop to Long Meadow. The decision to open this Fire Break was necessary and permitted outside the normal works project approval process, due to exigent circumstances that came up during the last controlled burn (fire fighter safety and control of an unplanned flare up). State Parks are interested in trying to reopen the portion of Deja Vu that does not cross into Gray Whale.

Perhaps private citizens should bound together to lobby CCC, F&G, F&W and try to get clarity, resources and lowering the requirements for opening the Gray Whale trails. This shouldn't be limited to mountain bikers. All users who have a vested interest in opening the trails should consider lobbying these organizations for access.

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