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Scrub oak cutting at Tunnel 4 a flashpoint for Del Mar Mesa Preserve

Will tree lovers blame cyclists for vandalism?

Suzy Murphy: Don’t cut anything!” - Image by Suzy Murphy
Suzy Murphy: Don’t cut anything!”

The Del Mar Mesa Preserve is located just to the south of State Route 56. It is part of the larger Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve which stretches seven miles from the I-5/I-805 merge on its western edge to just east of I-15. The main attraction of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve is a large concentration of scrub oak trees. A collection of trails routed through these trees became known as “Tunnels” due to the sprawling and interconnected branches that formed a canopy over the trails — for hikers and bikers, the experience mimics traveling through an actual tunnel.

The Tunnels trails had heavy usage for years even though they were technically illegal. Back in 2013, Fish and Wildlife wardens ticketed a lot of trail users for violating habitat protection laws. Circa 2015, a deal was struck that made Tunnels One and Four legal trails; the latter has become the main attraction. For hikers, bikers and equestrians, a trip down Tunnel Four is now something they can enjoy minus the fear of getting ticketed, even though they still have to keep their eyes peeled for occasional obstacles — such as low-hanging tree branches. Speaking of which, it appears that “ducking” became too much of a burden for one user recently after illegally cut trees and branches were discovered along the trail route.

"They just cut the whole thing and then all the logs and cuttings were just thrown in the bushes willy-nilly."

“There were two trees when you came down just a little bit into the trail, maybe a quarter of the way down, that kind of crossed in almost like an X or an arch and you had to duck,” San Diego Mountain Biking Association executive director Susie Murphy explains. “I’m 5’8” and I had to duck pretty low, and I’ve seen people whack their heads on these trees before, but they were stable. It wasn’t like they were falling. It was just always one of those things, ‘Don’t forget to look out for the trees!’ Those were the ones that the person cut. The one branch was at least eight or nine inches in diameter, and those trees can take decades and decades to grow that big. Those trees are called Dwarf Oaks. The one directly opposite they cut the whole tree down to a stump. It was maybe six inches in diameter. They just cut the whole thing and then all the logs and cuttings were just thrown in the bushes willy-nilly everywhere.”

After visiting the trail, Murphy determined that there was one more tree cut down and some more smaller cuts along Tunnel Four. Tunnel One had no recent cuts. The alterations have also de-tunneled a portion of the trail as well. “I did a video from that point that I posted on the [San Diego Mountain Bike] Instagram and I said, ‘So, see how it’s sunny here now? It didn’t used to be sunny here.’ So, yeah, it’s definitely not like it used to be,” Murphy says.

She continues, “People were freaking out because people are black and white. Like it’s all or nothing. I don’t know if people were thinking in their head, ‘Oh my gosh, the person went through and cut every tree down.’ No, that’s not what happened. Just some cuts on Tunnel Four that changed the character of the trail, but ninety-nine percent of Tunnels are still the way it was. But our point is now, we should find this person, so they stop doing what they’re doing. We need to not have people cut anything else. Don’t cut anything!”

What sets the tree cutting in this area apart from illegal trimming on other trails is that the trees are the actual object of interest at this preserve. They are the main feature. The visible, above ground scrub oaks at Tunnels are estimated to be about a century old, and their root systems may be far older than that. They take an eternity to grow, and they are few in numbers, so tampering with the ones that are around draws immediate attention.

“If the city was gonna go in and consider cutting anything, or if we proposed that there were a couple things that need to be cut there would be months of discussion before anybody even did anything,” Murphy explains. “The thing is that there are very vocal pretty powerful people on the conservation side who I’m sure are just waiting to pounce. There are so many eyes and so many stakeholders. It’s such a precious, special area. It’s Del Mar Mesa Preserve, so it has special rules.”

The Los Penasquitos Canyon region has become the long-running Gettysburg of regional trail battle sites. Clashes over overcrowding, social trail conflicts, directionality, habitat destruction, illegal trails and land acquisition and development have all played out on this land. “This area for twenty-plus years has been such a contentious area for all of this stuff,” Murphy says. “Then when somebody goes in and [cuts trees] then it just all blows up again, and it riles the temper of the native plant people and the Sierra Club, and they just have more stuff to throw at trail users who they think shouldn’t be out there.”

The trail vandalism at Tunnels is thought to have occurred between June 20-27. If you have any information, contact Senior Ranger Gina Washington (858) 538-8066 or [email protected]

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Suzy Murphy: Don’t cut anything!” - Image by Suzy Murphy
Suzy Murphy: Don’t cut anything!”

The Del Mar Mesa Preserve is located just to the south of State Route 56. It is part of the larger Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve which stretches seven miles from the I-5/I-805 merge on its western edge to just east of I-15. The main attraction of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve is a large concentration of scrub oak trees. A collection of trails routed through these trees became known as “Tunnels” due to the sprawling and interconnected branches that formed a canopy over the trails — for hikers and bikers, the experience mimics traveling through an actual tunnel.

The Tunnels trails had heavy usage for years even though they were technically illegal. Back in 2013, Fish and Wildlife wardens ticketed a lot of trail users for violating habitat protection laws. Circa 2015, a deal was struck that made Tunnels One and Four legal trails; the latter has become the main attraction. For hikers, bikers and equestrians, a trip down Tunnel Four is now something they can enjoy minus the fear of getting ticketed, even though they still have to keep their eyes peeled for occasional obstacles — such as low-hanging tree branches. Speaking of which, it appears that “ducking” became too much of a burden for one user recently after illegally cut trees and branches were discovered along the trail route.

"They just cut the whole thing and then all the logs and cuttings were just thrown in the bushes willy-nilly."

“There were two trees when you came down just a little bit into the trail, maybe a quarter of the way down, that kind of crossed in almost like an X or an arch and you had to duck,” San Diego Mountain Biking Association executive director Susie Murphy explains. “I’m 5’8” and I had to duck pretty low, and I’ve seen people whack their heads on these trees before, but they were stable. It wasn’t like they were falling. It was just always one of those things, ‘Don’t forget to look out for the trees!’ Those were the ones that the person cut. The one branch was at least eight or nine inches in diameter, and those trees can take decades and decades to grow that big. Those trees are called Dwarf Oaks. The one directly opposite they cut the whole tree down to a stump. It was maybe six inches in diameter. They just cut the whole thing and then all the logs and cuttings were just thrown in the bushes willy-nilly everywhere.”

After visiting the trail, Murphy determined that there was one more tree cut down and some more smaller cuts along Tunnel Four. Tunnel One had no recent cuts. The alterations have also de-tunneled a portion of the trail as well. “I did a video from that point that I posted on the [San Diego Mountain Bike] Instagram and I said, ‘So, see how it’s sunny here now? It didn’t used to be sunny here.’ So, yeah, it’s definitely not like it used to be,” Murphy says.

She continues, “People were freaking out because people are black and white. Like it’s all or nothing. I don’t know if people were thinking in their head, ‘Oh my gosh, the person went through and cut every tree down.’ No, that’s not what happened. Just some cuts on Tunnel Four that changed the character of the trail, but ninety-nine percent of Tunnels are still the way it was. But our point is now, we should find this person, so they stop doing what they’re doing. We need to not have people cut anything else. Don’t cut anything!”

What sets the tree cutting in this area apart from illegal trimming on other trails is that the trees are the actual object of interest at this preserve. They are the main feature. The visible, above ground scrub oaks at Tunnels are estimated to be about a century old, and their root systems may be far older than that. They take an eternity to grow, and they are few in numbers, so tampering with the ones that are around draws immediate attention.

“If the city was gonna go in and consider cutting anything, or if we proposed that there were a couple things that need to be cut there would be months of discussion before anybody even did anything,” Murphy explains. “The thing is that there are very vocal pretty powerful people on the conservation side who I’m sure are just waiting to pounce. There are so many eyes and so many stakeholders. It’s such a precious, special area. It’s Del Mar Mesa Preserve, so it has special rules.”

The Los Penasquitos Canyon region has become the long-running Gettysburg of regional trail battle sites. Clashes over overcrowding, social trail conflicts, directionality, habitat destruction, illegal trails and land acquisition and development have all played out on this land. “This area for twenty-plus years has been such a contentious area for all of this stuff,” Murphy says. “Then when somebody goes in and [cuts trees] then it just all blows up again, and it riles the temper of the native plant people and the Sierra Club, and they just have more stuff to throw at trail users who they think shouldn’t be out there.”

The trail vandalism at Tunnels is thought to have occurred between June 20-27. If you have any information, contact Senior Ranger Gina Washington (858) 538-8066 or [email protected]

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