Bases once isolated from cities are increasingly butting up against urban sprawl.
On Sunday, January 17, Elizabeth Daubner was enjoying a weekend bike ride with several other riders in the Sycamore Canyon region to the east of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. She had parked in a lot off of Highway 67 and descended down the Ridge Trail into Goodan Ranch. A short while after passing through the southern gate of the ranch, her group had a startling encounter.
“I don’t know, a quarter mile, maybe a little farther, and we came across the military,” Daubner said. “They were down in the river area and they came up to us fully armed. They made us stop and then escorted us down to their staging area.”
Specifically, the soldiers guided the riders to a nearby trail — which runs parallel to the trail Daubner was riding and was a short distance to the west — and looped them back up to the southern gate of Goodan Ranch. There, the Marines issued citations to the riders and hikers and confiscated the bikes.
The exact location of where the riders were stopped, as well as where the citations were issued, is at the heart of this dispute.
“I had no idea if I was on their land,” Daubner said. “I would certainly guess not, but you have to be a surveyor to try and figure it out.” She insists that she never passed any signs that indicated they were on the air station property. “And the military verified that,” she added. “They said, ‘We know you didn’t.’ It was pointed out to them that we didn’t go by any ‘no trespassing’ signs, and they agreed that there were no ‘no trespassing’ signs, but that we were trespassing.”
As for the location of the ticketing, the area to which the soldiers escorted the riders is not on MCAS property. Jessica Geiszler, the marketing and public outreach manager for the County of San Diego, stated in an email that, “Several of the mountain bikers who were cited for trespassing did, in fact, receive citations on County land. These bikers were tracked coming into County land from an area where they were not allowed. They were stopped in an open-circle turnabout within Goodan Ranch Sycamore Canyon Preserve that served as a safe stopping point for both bikers and military personnel. We did not have advance notice of this situation. That said, [the Marine Corps] has the right to issue federal fines and to confiscate bikes for unlawful riding on trails that are currently closed to the public.”
The ticketing was part of a sweeping enforcement effort by the Marines that took place this past Martin Luther King Day weekend. In total, 45 bikes were confiscated by patrols in the southern “East Elliot” side of the base as well as the eastern edge where Daubner ran into the Marines.
Abandoned Atlas missile testing facility
According to the Marines, trespassing on the base is a chronic issue, primarily due to the fact that the base borders a series of recreational spaces — Mission Trails, Sycamore Canyon, Goodan Ranch — and has no fencing that clearly defines its borders. Some trespassers intentionally enter the base to check out, for example, the abandoned Atlas missile testing facility, while others, such as a grandfather and his grandkids who wandered onto the edge of the property while I was being given a tour of the base, stumble onto it by accident.
When queried about base boundaries and possible fencing options, the Marines responded, “The air station spans 23,000 acres, of which 15,000 acres are located east of I-15. Aside from the massive costs expended for a fencing project of that magnitude, the East Miramar training areas consist of, or border, many environmentally sensitive areas and open-space habitat linkages. Constructing an environmentally acceptable fence would be expensive and ineffective against the vast majority of trespassers who ride past existing signs.”
Elizabeth Daubner created this map of her military encounter.
The signage issue is a matter of contention between the recreationists and the Marines. Daubner insisted that there was no signage providing a warning that she was entering Marine Corps property from the southern gate at Goodan Ranch, and a picture she provided to the Reader seems to reinforce this point. Daubner isn’t the first to experience an issue of this nature.
Before Ben Stone took on his role as the vice president of the San Diego Mountain Bike Association (SDMBA), he had a similar run-in to the one Daubner experienced this past January. Stone was confronted near the southern edge of the base in the East Elliot region three years ago.
“I was eating a Subway sandwich after riding up top there,” he said. “It was 20-plus guys with dogs, ATVs, and fully loaded machine guns. I actually have a video of it because I thought it was the wildlife agencies coming over the hill, or a ranger or something. I saw a dust cloud coming at me over the ridge lines, and then vehicle after vehicle just kept coming. We talked very nicely back and forth, me in a very high-pitched voice, as they were wrong, as I was actually on Mission Trails property. I had come up [a trail south and east of the base’s border called] Mr. Toads. At the time, I had zero idea about any ownership in the area.”
Similarly, Daubner’s route, which ran south toward the border of the base on the Sycamore Ranch side, most likely avoided any crossover onto military property, whereas riders in the same area heading north most likely did cross onto military property before they encountered the soldiers.
Here’s where things get tricky. After reviewing maps provided by Stone, it seems likely that both Stone and Daubner not only avoided passing through military land before they confronted the soldiers, but even when they did eventually cross paths with them, there is a high likelihood that they were still on public property. But, according to Capt. Chris Robinson (the operations officer for the provost marshal’s office), the sign at the top of Mr. Toad’s is about 50 yards north of the base’s border, and the larger sign at the top of the popular Three Barrels trail is even farther north than that. This would imply that Stone was on base property, though not far, during his encounter. In the end, Stone exited his confrontation with a warning, while Daubner exited hers with a federal citation and minus one $3000 mountain bike.
Though this sign couldn't be any clearer, bikers and hikers say there aren't enough.
Stone elaborated on his confrontation, saying he had a lot of empathy for the soldiers. He talked with the group for a while, a conversation that he describes as “a relatively nice experience — other than the first two minutes of it, which were a little tense.” He found out that they had all just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. They had only been back for about a month, so “they had a certain intensity about them.” He also noted the old-fashioned method they were utilizing to decipher their location.
“These guys definitely didn’t know,” Stone said. “They had maps. They weren’t using a GPS device, so they were using physical topo maps to try and sort it out with lines. I imagine the guys who were ticketing people now had actually used… I hope they were using a GPS device. But, a lot of the GPS signatures were, 100 percent, right on the boundary of City of San Diego ownership and military land or county ownership and military land. I imagine they must have had a handheld device like a Garmin or something along those lines; otherwise, it’s sort of crazy.”
He added, “I think that where they have been ticketing people, they have a significant responsibility. If you’re going to ticket people so close to the boundaries, special thought has to be put into the fact that you’re bordering these recreational parks. If you’re going to be citing people with federal misdemeanor tickets and confiscating their property, you really need to increase that burden of proof. If you’re just turning people back, your signs can be anywhere you want. If you’re citing people with things that can affect their jobs and their future, you really have a responsibility to make it clear where people are.”
A couple of weeks after the January bike confiscations, the San Diego Mountain Biking Association held an advocacy meeting at the Foothills Church in El Cajon. The meeting had to be moved at the last minute from its original location in Kearny Mesa due to an unusually high turnout. The riders who had been ticketed showed up in force, but it was San Diego County supervisor Dianne Jacob who proved to be the most vocal speaker of the evening. She wasn’t complaining about a confiscated bike, though; she was angered by a deal gone bad.
Jacob has been working with the military for 20 years to try to get the Stowe Trail re-opened. The Stowe Trail extends from the proposed Fanita Ranch development on the northwestern edge of Santee all the way up to Goodan Ranch. It weaves through the eastern side of MCAS Miramar along the way. Getting the trail reopened means striking a land deal with the military, but even when a deal is made...well, there may not be a deal at all.
“I sit on the Goodan Ranch Committee,” Jacob said. “Goodan Ranch is a giant project of the county, the City of Poway, the City of Santee and Cal Fish and Wildlife. That’s when I first became aware of the Stowe Trail and issues involved with it. I took on the issue to try to work with, at that time, the Navy. I approached the commanding officer and said, ‘Hey, this is a useless piece of property to you, it’s a historic trail, it’s a value to the community, and you’ve got issues with it because of trespassing, and I think there’s a deal to be made.’ I made my pitch. There were a couple of Navy COs and they all said ‘No.’ Then the Marines took over, so I started working on each of the COs from the Marine Corps base. It wasn’t just a ‘No,’ it was a ‘Hell, no’ from the Marines. But I didn’t give up, and finally it was Maj. Gen. Bill Bowden who came in as the commanding officer. I approached him and I was delighted to hear, ‘Hey, I think we can work something out.”
Map of MCAS Miramar. The red shaded area is federal government property.
And work something out they did. In January 2006, Public Law 109-163 “Authorized the Department of the Navy to transfer fee title to the County of San Diego (County) of Stowe Trail and property to eastern boundary of MCAS restricting County’s use of land to passive park/recreational use.”
But the deal stalled in 2008 due to a high appraisal of the land in question and then dropped dead in an April 2010 meeting with new base commanding officer Col. Frank Richie. Even though a memorandum of agreement was (and still is) in place, he changed the position of MCAS Miramar to oppose the proposed land transfer. They have kept this stance since.
The Stowe Trail collapse, in the eyes of Jacob, is a betrayal, and she’s not going to stay quiet about it. At the mountain-biking association meeting, she went on to say that “there is absolutely no excuse today as to why the Marines are having to extend energy and manpower in citing individuals that are going through this route. There has been a long history. There was a deal, and there still is a deal on the table.”
Had the Stowe Trail deal been honored, Daubner would have had no issues with the Marines on her Sunday-afternoon ride. The entire area in question would have become a legal trail network. The main reason the Marines gave for changing their mind about the Stowe Trail deal was encroachment onto their base. They’re concerned about losing valuable training areas, buffer areas and stand-off distance. The encroachment issue has apparently become a nationwide problem for the armed forces. Bases once isolated from cities are increasingly butting up against urban sprawl. It’s a scenario that will play out locally once Fanita Ranch nestles up close to Miramar’s border and another massive development — Castlerock, 415 single-family homes — moves in next to the base.
So, is the Stowe Trail dead? Not exactly. The new plan is to re-route the trail a bit farther to the east so that it will avoid the base altogether. It requires a new round of land purchases, though, as the city and county share the affected areas with private landowners.
“To get the Stowe Trail done, we need six entities or landowners to buy in,” Stone explained. “That can be cut down to five if the City of San Diego purchases a small parcel. The other alternative has four separate landowners.”
It’s not all bad news. According to Jacob, one positive development is that HomeFed Corp., which is developing Fanita Ranch, is onboard with the Stowe Trail. “That property owner has been very cooperative to have a trail connection from Mission Trails Park all the way up through Santee Lakes, through Fanita Ranch, and then up to Goodan Ranch. So, that’s our goal,” Jacob said.
One interesting aspect regarding the land to the east of MCAS Miramar is that it’s probably one of the few areas in San Diego County that has decreased in population over the past 100 years. Carol Billhardt Crafts, author of Goodan Ranch and Sycamore Canyon: A History of the Land: Then and Now, explained some of the history of the area.
“In the 1880s, we had people homesteading in the Stowe area,” she said. “Because of that, produce was sent down through the Stowe Trail to what is now Mission Gorge Road and over to the packing houses in what is now El Cajon. The area was called ‘Stowe.’ We’re not 100 percent certain why. There are several guesses. There were some English people that were developing parts of Poway at that point, and there were also families that met there and had a literary society. They met in a school room [the Stowe School, constructed in 1890] and had book discussions. It was around the time Harriet Beecher Stowe had written Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was popular, so it could have been named for that reason. We don’t know. They are all conjectures.”
According to Crafts, although the Stowe Trail is clearly displayed on old maps of the region, the inhabitants of Stowe seem to have dissipated rapidly. The Stowe School closed 13 years after it was built because children had begun to attend the nearby Cowles/Santee school, and nearly all the inhabitants had left the region before the massive 1916 “Hatfield Floods” isolated the area. Most ended up nearby in either Santee or Poway. The military took land from some of the remaining property owners soon after the floods, and by the time the Goodans bought their property in the late 1930s, the area was basically empty.
One thing the old homesteaders didn’t have to worry about was the threat of unexploded ordnance (any sort of military ammunition or explosive that has failed to explode as intended).
The Marines’ public affairs office says the East Miramar property was used for high-explosive, live-fire training in the 1940s and that unexploded ordnance remains in those historic impact areas within MCAS Miramar. The office added that, “There is a well-documented case of two children who encountered 1940s-era ordnance in the Tierrasanta area in the early 1980s. They did not survive.”
A New York Times article from January 19, 1984, details the incident: “Eight-year-old Corey, 12-year-old Carl, and a friend, 8-year-old Matthew Smith, happened upon an old artillery shell Dec. 10. They looked at it, turned it over in their hands and hit it against a rock. The explosion killed Corey and Matthew and injured Carl.... When the Navy turned the land over to the city in 1964, it said it could not guarantee that ammunition would not turn up,” and that “nobody knows how many rounds were fired in the war years or how many failed to detonate. A study conducted by the county found, ‘It is probable, no matter how complete and exhaustive the effort to locate and destroy stray military ordnance, there will always be a potential for uncovering unexploded ordnance.’’’
It may seem annoying to the riders and hikers, but there are certain elevated life risks associated with entering the base’s property. At the mountain-biking association meeting, Marine spokesman Lt. Matthew Gregory reiterated that the goal of the Marines was to keep everyone safe. “We don’t want to see anyone hurt on our property, and that’s really what it comes down to for us,” he said.
Lt. Matthew Gregory and Capt. Chris Robinson
Regardless of whether one thinks the Marines are a tad paranoid regarding the protection of their base’s borders, or if one feels the mountain bikers and hikers shouldn’t venture anywhere near them, one fact remains clear: the borders of the base, at ground level, are not clear at all. The Marine Corps doesn’t want to spend money on fencing that would satisfy the wildlife-corridor requirements because it could turn into an expensive endeavor. Alternatives to fencing are out there, though, and could serve to define borders visually at ground level. The website homesteadingtoday.com offered some interesting options in a discussion forum. These included specific vegetation that would define the borders, PVC style piping raised from the ground three to four feet placed in 50- to 100-foot intervals along the boundary line, and stacks of old tires. In many cases, not the prettiest options, but better than nothing.
Capt. Chris Robinson points out a survey marker
During a tour of the MCAS property in late March, Capt. Chris Robinson pointed out a bright orange survey marker that was clearly visible off one of the trails. This was one of the few remaining markers of this kind though, as almost all of the others had melted away during various wildfires (including the massive Cedar Fire) which scorched the base’s property from 2003-2006. Unfortunately, they were never replaced. These, in some sort of uniform arrangement, would work quite well to define the base’s border at ground level.
Ben Stone still feels that the best idea is more signage at key spots. “I think the real answer is — and we’ve offered this to them and they’ve told us they were gonna take us up on this offer — walk the areas with us, decide where they are really going to enforce their borders, and we’ll show you where you need to put signs that say, ‘You are entering Marine property,’” he said.
Supervisor Jacob reinforced that there are different ways to communicate with the bicycle community in this case rather than taking a strong-arm position. “First of all, there should be more signage to inform the community that it’s military property. It’s not well-marked. It’s not well-signed. It’s not fenced. I thought it was extreme and a very drastic approach to send a message, and there’s better ways to communicate than that.”
Robinson pointed out a lot of signs during the tour of the base, but many were likely in areas that mountain bikers and hikers rarely traverse; there are plenty scattered along the larger fire roads that run along the ridgelines of the base’s property, though; there are even some in brush that would inform a truly lost soul that they had wandered onto federal property. The key is most likely to get plenty of these alongside single-track bike trails and hope that the riders respect them instead of tearing them out of the ground.
Perhaps the most mind-blowing facet of this tale is how difficult it is to find a map online that clearly displays the base’s borders in relation to the trail networks in the surrounding vicinities. A post on dirttreaders.com linked me to a site called “Wikimapia” that superimposed the base’s borders on top of satellite images of the area. It is not completely accurate, though, according to Robinson, and this may explain Robinson and Stone’s conflicting opinions as to where the actual borderline on the East Elliot side of the base is located.
The Miramar Marines have made an official map of the base’s borders available on their website. Hikers and bikers who know the areas and trail systems well can now get a good idea of figuring out which trails cross onto military land and which trails don’t.
On March 18th, attorney Richard Duquette, who is representing five of the ticketed bikers, reached a “favorable settlement” with Marine officials. The deal stipulates, “In exchange for the mountain bikers’ promise not to sue the government for civil rights violations, and payment of a $250 civil fee, the Feds agreed to immediately give the bikes back.”
The deal lets the bikers walk for half the $500 fine and also eliminates any federal charges against them. It is now being offered to all of the mountain bikers ticketed over Martin Luther King weekend.
But not all of the riders are ready to jump onboard with this arrangement. Elizabeth Daubner is not going to take the deal.
“They told us we would have to plead guilty to get our bikes back,” she said. “Our other choice would be to go to court to fight it. I will not plead guilty. I am not guilty, so I will fight the ticket.... I think the entire reason for confiscating the bikes is to try to threaten the public. Rather than making it clear where their base is, they just decided it was just easier to threaten everybody, and then you’re afraid to come anywhere near anything that might be their land, but most likely isn’t. It was an act of intimidation, and I think it was done on land that might not even be theirs.”
Jacob agrees with the questionable nature of the encounter location, calling it “marginal” in terms of proximity to the base. She added that she is planning to follow up on whether the Marines actually ticketed the riders on county land. “We’re looking into it. I don’t have an answer right now, but to me that’s just an example of the extreme and over-arching enforcement that’s being done.”
When questioned at the mountain-biking association meeting at Foothills Church, Kevin Loomis, president of the San Diego association, advised the attendees not to venture north of the 52 bridge while riding in the area. The air station’s border is about 1.5 miles north of the bridge.