The future of public access to the Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve for the recreational set appears to be up in the air once again. After trails were closed last summer, an unofficial truce seemed to have been struck between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the San Diego Mountain Biking Association regarding bike access to the area.
In a letter dated August 24, 2017, that was posted on mtbr.com, mountain-biking association vice-president Ben Stone wrote: “Many of you are asking what is the status of enforcement on the property and although I cannot answer that question for you definitively, [California Department of Fish and Wildlife] has not enjoyed the increased scrutiny that was brought on them recently and has taken little action on the property since. The City of Carlsbad is also wary of stepping into the bees nest at [Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve] by using their new ranger program to provide enforcement for the State.”
More trails have recently been closed, though, and the fight to completely shut down access to all of the illegal trails appears to be picking up steam. Diane Nygaard was one of the founders of the Preserve Calavera organization. She has fought to protect the open-space at Carlsbad Highlands since 2000.
“Go back on Google Earth and look at what it looked like ten years ago to what it looks like today: 50 miles of illegal trails have been cut through that sensitive habitat. We’re not talking about a little bit of impact, we’re really talking about tremendous impact. You look at those aerial maps and you can see the vegetation might be 20 percent left of what was there. The extent of ground cover is dramatically reduced, so all of the biological resources have been greatly impacted,” she said.
Nygaard and Tim Dillingham (land program supervisor for California Department of Fish and Wildlife) both believe the compromise for the bikers who use the reserve is relocation. Their concept is to develop a nearby park or open-space area with bike-friendly trails. Some of the trails in Carlsbad Highlands recently shut down had features such as jumps, and Dillingham feels that the issues with the bikers now resembles the issues that skateboarders had in California before the second wave of skateparks hit the state.
“Skateboarders used to go out and they recreated on all the public areas and they damaged the stone benches and they damaged railings until we started doing the planning,” he explained. “Now the skateboarders go to the skateparks because it’s really what they wanted. It’s got all the features they want, and everyone lets them do it there because that’s what it was intended for.”
During our discussion, Nygaard proposed the El Corazon region of Oceanside as a prime spot for new mountain-biking trails. The land there was heavily degraded by sand mining for decades, so there would likely be no environmental issues to contend with at that location. Dillingham stated that there was some privately owned, open space adjacent to the ecological reserve that could potentially work, and Black Mountain Ranch Park, which is north of Highway 56 near I-15.
Of the latter, Dillingham said it’s “an active-use park that has baseball fields and whatnot and has trails that go out to an area that’s predominantly nonnative grasses, thistle, and tumbleweed. It’s not very pretty at the moment. It needs a lot of TLC. I was looking at it thinking, This is a perfect spot for mountain biking because, while I was out there for a walk, it seemed too mountainous.”
Besides the bikers, hikers who enjoy the park may have to contend with some drastic changes as well. For Nygaard, even keeping the two legal trails that run through the reserve (basically fire roads) open to hikers is up in the air. The reason for this is that they feed into all of the other illegal trails, most of which aren’t identified with any sort of signage. As a result, “the average person going out there has no way of knowing if you’re on a legal or an illegal trail,” Nygaard said.
Ben Stone pointed out that shutting down all the illegal trails would also cut off access to a popular volcano (Cerro de la Calavera) that locals enjoy hiking up to watch sunsets. According to Stone, there’s technically no legal routes to that spot either.
To illustrate that all hope was not lost regarding human access to the reserve, Nygaard stressed how the nearby Lake Calavera Preserve serves as a prime example of an area riddled with illegal trails that was corralled into something more legal and organized.
“There were numerous illegal trails all over Calavera, and new trails were being cut all the time. The city worked with numerous stakeholders in other preserves and worked really hard to cut off trails, allow some trails and to manage them in a way that the resources were really protected. There’s been a dramatic change,” she said.
A dramatic change likely lies in the future for the Carlsbad reserve as well. The big question is will the area continue to be experienced from within or enter a new era of being observed from afar?