“I don’t think there’s such a big schism between the cyclists and the horseback riders,” says Clews. She cites the presence of both cyclists and horseback riders on top of Del Mar Mesa already.
After various controversies over the trails in the planned new preserve erupted, the City set up a September 18 meeting to allow all parties to air their views. Representatives from both the California Department of Fish and Game and the San Diego Multiple Species Conservation Program came to express environmental concerns over allowing any recreational use of the area. Basil’s trails coalition and the San Diego Mountain Biking Association used their speaking time to present a joint-trails plan for the area. Rob Mikuteit, a member of both organizations, drew up the plan.
“I took the City’s [Multiple Species Conservation Program] map of ecologically sensitive areas in the new preserve,” Mikuteit tells me, “and overlaid it with a trails system.” The plan included the old interior trails network created by the migrant community.
I ask Mikuteit about the claim of some equestrians that bikes damage trails. “Research studies have shown,” he argued, “that bikes do no more harm than walkers. It’s not the trails that are at risk anyway, but the ecologically sensitive areas, such as vernal pools, which are abundant in the new preserve.” The idea of his plan, says Mikuteit, was “especially to keep the trails from coming too close to the vernal pools. To protect them, our plan completely eliminates or reroutes probably 70 percent of the old trails.”
Vernal pools are low spots in the ground that collect water during rainy periods. They are not connected to other water sources, such as streams or lakes. Their water usually evaporates when dry weather returns. But while they are wet, the spots exhibit scenes of teeming life. The San Diego fairy shrimp, on the federal list of endangered species, is perhaps the most renowned inhabitant of the local pools.
The pools also support amphibian life. One of the unique delights in the Carmel Mountain Preserve during springtime, says Mikuteit, “is that you’ll suddenly see hundreds of tadpoles in a vernal pool on a mesa very far from running water, and it’s really a fantastic thing to see how the life cycle works. That was one thing that thrilled my son, to see all these creatures coming alive and sprouting legs.”
Mikuteit is put off by visions of chain-link fences that might appear in the new Del Mar Mesa Preserve to keep people away from sensitive areas. He knows that something must be done and thinks that split-rail fences would be less obtrusive to the natural experience. Especially if they carry interpretive signs, as is already the case in Carmel Mountain Preserve, to explain to visitors the sensitivity of certain species and the vernal pools.
How people get in to enjoy the sights, however, has yet to be decided. The Multi-use Trails Coalition favors the most open access. But Mikuteit admits the problem is more complicated than it might first appear. People on foot, for instance, come in as both slow walkers and joggers. He takes into account the problem equestrians face from joggers and bikers who might spook the horses. Agreeing with Bunnie Clews, Mikuteit thinks the ultimate solution may be to divide trails according to the types of users.
For instance, the fact that horseback riders would find the low oak canopies in Deer Canyon difficult to ride under doesn’t mean others should be prevented from enjoying them. “I’ll tell you,” says Mikuteit, “when we ride our bikes through those tunnels, my son gets so energized he goes flying through. It’s a special experience.”
In the meantime, the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board is asserting its right to weigh in on the Del Mar Mesa Preserve. After the board’s November 13 meeting, its chairman Gary Levitt sent a letter to Chris Zirkle, director of open space for the San Diego Park and Recreation Department, stating the board’s position on the trails. In conformance with standards of the Multiple Species Conservation Program, the letter placed a high priority on protection of the ecologically sensitive lands in the preserve. It argued that “any expansion of trails beyond those shown in the draft resource management plan should be limited to establishing connectivity.”
By email, Levitt tells me that his board’s concern about additional trails does not refer to “those apparently originally established by the migrants.” Instead, he cites three main developments: first, “the significant increase in the use of some of those original trails” and the fact that these trails, which were quite narrow at first, “are now trail highways up to 3 ft wide or more in places”; second, brand-new trails have been established, creating linkages between older trails “or just creating trails in places which never had trails before”; and third, “that in many places man made jumps have been created through mounding up soil or even by building ramps out of wood, and in other places existing sandstone bluffs are now being used as jumps, damaging these natural features which have probably been there, undisturbed for thousands of years, till they were discovered in the last few years.”
The Peñasquitos Canyon citizens’ advisory committee was scheduled to approve or deny the final Del Mar Mesa Preserve resource management plan on December 20. On November 13, however, the Del Mar Times reported that the City had postponed the meeting until January 15. According to the paper, Chris Zirkle is deliberating “whether [the City] should close the canyon to recreational use or devise a trail plan that is the least disturbing to the biologically sensitive land.”