Congressman Duncan Hunter has jumped into the fray between U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the people who frequent the Sweetwater Park area: he has told the agency that its plan, which will potentially shut down about 200 miles of horse and hiking trails in the 11,500-acre National Wildlife Refuge, is "in need of major improvements."
Hunter stepped in after a series of contentious meetings where Fish & Wildlife staff presented their four alternatives for a 15-year management plan they are required to draft.
Individuals, the Bonita Valley Horsemen, the San Diego Mountain Biking Association, and the Backcountry Horsemen of California have expressed their concerns over the trail closures. They say the loss of connectivity and the potential for equestrian ranches and businesses losing value and ultimately being shuttered could result from the closures.
Hunter says that all the drafts were created before the agency began talking to the people who hike, fish, hunt, and ride horses in the huge preserve that's home to about a half dozen threatened and endangered species.
The preserve includes large parcels of land on the south and east sides of the Sweetwater Reservoir, but also land in the Tijuana River Valley, along the bottom of the San Diego Bay, and even a few lots in the Casa De Oro neighborhood.
"The solution here is simple: go back to the beginning of process, meet with local representatives from the community and user groups, and develop alternatives that utilize the best of their recommendations while, at the same time, are consistent with federal mandates," Hunter wrote.
Fish & Wildlife staff presented their four conceptual plans in June, with a 60-day public-comment period. The reception has not be enthusiastic — at a July 15 meeting at Steele Canyon High School, members of the public shouted at Fish & Wildlife staff, according to Jason Showalter, president of the San Diego Mountain Biking Association.
Fish & Wildlife deputy projects leader Slader Buck confirmed that the wildlife refuge received the letter.
"We are responding to the points in Congressman Hunter's letter and to the concerns he has raised," Buck said.
Fish & Wildlife has also scheduled four meetings — one has already been held — with trail-users to give them a chance to show the refuge staff where they'd like to have trails.