Trail biking in a north San Diego canyon seems to be running up against its own popularity. Deer Canyon is part of a new preserve in the City of San Diego’s open-space system, whose management is guided by the Multiple Species Conservation Program. The protected area, called Del Mar Mesa Preserve, is located north of Los Peñasquitos Canyon and south of the Ted Williams Freeway. Deer Canyon lies north of and below the eastern section of Del Mar Mesa. The City has been acquiring much of the land for over ten years. It is home to the horned toad and barrel cactus as well as several endangered species.
The City hired Recon Environmental Inc. to write for the new preserve a “resource management plan,” which has been in production since 2002. Over the summer, the company unveiled a final version of the document, which the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve Citizens’ Advisory Committee immediately rejected. The problem? In the committee’s view, the plan failed to describe an adequate trail system for the newly dedicated area. The Peñasquitos Canyon group has also been overseeing trails planning for Carmel Mountain Preserve, immediately to the west.
San Diego’s open spaces are intended to protect ecologically sensitive lands and make them publicly available for the enjoyment of beautiful scenery and natural peacefulness. For trails, Recon’s management plan relied primarily on San Diego Gas and Electric Company access roads into Del Mar Mesa and Deer Canyon. To allow passage by SDG&E trucks, the roads are much like regular streets, except that they are dirt and about 20 feet wide. They tend to be located on the new preserve’s perimeter.
Some members of the committee suspected that Recon was largely ignorant of an existing interior system of trails in Deer Canyon. Or Recon may have simply wanted to exclude the trails as too environmentally intrusive. Together with nearby McGonigle Canyon, Deer Canyon was long the make-do, outdoor home for multitudes of migrant farmworkers. In 2002, local media shone a light on the encampments, embarrassing the Carmel Valley and Del Mar Mesa communities’ more affluent members. Shortly thereafter, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents drove the migrants out of Deer Canyon, and they have not returned. (Hundreds of migrants still live in McGonigle Canyon, however, in close proximity to the houses of well-to-do San Diegans.)
While living in Deer Canyon, the migrants created numerous trails for entering, exiting, and moving around the lower areas. The trails cannot be seen from the canyon’s higher reaches because the branches and foliage of abundant Nuttall’s scrub oaks cover them. The trees grow to be only about 12 feet high, but they are 12 feet wide at their crests. When they grow close together, the trees form a dense blanket over the ground.
Erik Basil is a member of the Peñasquitos Canyon citizens’ advisory committee and president of an advocacy group called the Multi-use Trails Coalition. “Although these canyons have always had ‘jeep roads,’ motorcycle trails and SDG&E access roads carved through them,” writes Basil in an email, “the itinerant workers…created a vast network of organic pedestrian and bike trails in and among the low, coastal scrub oaks that fill the arroyos there. As [the migrants] moved out, runners and bikers in the know began to move in and, after the fires of 2007 that closed major running and biking trail areas, the kids and families running and riding these trails have grown to immense numbers. Until recently, all this land was private property and, prior to the owner’s transfer of the parcels to the City…comprised the largest ‘permission’ trails network in the County. The trails are unique in that…a significant number wind through the scrub oaks under ‘full canopy’ for miles of narrow, shaded, quiet [passageways] near a gurgling stream. They have become famous in the running and cycling community under descriptive but unofficial names, such as the ‘Shire,’ ‘Hobbit Trails,’ and the ‘Penasquitos Tunnels.’ ”
But some local property owners resent the runners and bikers. Until recent and widespread residential development, Carmel Valley was horse country. “Now there may be as few as 50 horses stabled in the area,” Basil tells me. But a horse-country frame of mind still persists. There is strong feeling among a few property owners living close to the new preserves that trail use should be limited to horseback riding. The bikers’ presence seems to announce that long-established neighborhood life is ebbing away.
Some ranchers of yesteryear are also unhappy about how much residential development now surrounds them. “But many of them made fortunes by selling land to the developers,” argues Basil. “Now they want to keep the Del Mar Mesa and Deer Canyon as their own little private backyards.”
Real estate broker Bunnie Clews, whose son Christian owns Clews Horse Ranch, gives me an equestrian’s point of view. Both mother and son are members of the Peñasquitos Canyon committee — and ardent horseback riders. “I was totally unprepared,” she says, “for the number of trails that are down in Deer Canyon when I first walked it in August of this year. I saw probably 50 cyclists that day. And I know that some horses have been down there because I saw evidence.
“But horses and cyclists cannot use the same trails very successfully,” continues Clews, “because the bikes are so fast and they’re quiet. They come zipping up on you, and a horse just blows up. Depending on the horse and rider, that can have disastrous results. Some of the horses recover and some don’t. They’re frightened and they take off. They’re prey animals and they have a fight-or-flight mentality, mainly flight.
“So the two groups cannot use the trails together. If they make the Deer Canyon tunnels part of the trail system, they need to research them and allow bikes on some and horses on the others. I will tell you that I have never ridden down in the tunnels of Deer Canyon on a horse. As it is right now, the tunnels are really low. I’m pretty short and so is my horse. And I would be bent over, not that that doesn’t happen on trails, but most of the ones in Deer Canyon are really not used by horses. I saw one pile of old poop. And it was old. I do agree that horses shouldn’t have to be confined to roadways. There’s nothing pleasant about riding down a big fat fire road.
“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.”