County releases first draft trail plan

10/03/2013

The roughly 270 miles of roads and trails in Marin’s open space areas could be cropped as part of the district’s new management plan, with troublesome trails decommissioned to protect habitat and foster a better-managed trail system.

On Tuesday evening roughly 100 equestrians, mountain bikers in cycling jerseys and other outdoor enthusiasts gathered for a presentation of the draft plan and accompanying environmental impact report for the unpaved roads and trails that course through over 16,000 acres in the county’s Open Space District. 

It is the first comprehensive management plan since a ballot initiative created the district four decades ago and it aims to better protect habitat, limit total road and trail mileage and implement a zero-tolerance policy for illegal trails, among other management goals and practices.

The EIR is now open for a 60-day public comment period that ends Dec. 2. 

As the has district accumulated more and more land, it has also racked up various problems: trails and roads inherited in poor condition, so-called “social trails” not authorized by the district and often cutting through sensitive habitats, and conflicts between different users—mountain bicyclists, horseback riders, dog walkers and hikers. 

The plan’s three-pronged purpose includes protecting important habitat; 51 rare plants have been documented on open space lands, along with 11 special status wildlife species. The plan seeks to create a system that can be effectively maintained by staffers, who have limited time and resources. 

And since visitor use of open space has increased significantly in the past few decades—particularly through mountain biking, which didn’t exist in the early 1970’s—new management practices are critical, the county says.

The plan’s development was fraught with disagreement when the district started holding public meetings three years ago. “We started out with a lot of conflict. We had a lot of debate about who belongs here,” said Linda Dahl, the director of the Marin County Parks and Open Space Department. 

Those disagreements were at no time more visible than in June, when two young mountain bikers zipping down a trail in Novato startled a pair of horses that threw their riders, causing significant injuries to one woman. The kids did not stop to help.

Elise Holland, the department’s former chief of planning and resources who helped spearhead the plan, said that although the district will soon double its ranger staff from six to 12 people to help enforce new and current policies, it is still responsible for overseeing a significant trail system divided between six separate regions around the county, two of which are in West Marin. 

In order to streamline management, the plan creates four distinct “visitor use management zones,” depending on whether the purpose of a given area is to be “immersed in nature” or serve higher-level uses; these categories will help dictate regulations and management in accordance with how people use the areas and to what extent the lands have already been disturbed.

The plan will likely shrink road and trail mileage, since it would encourage the decommissioning of roads and trails that are costly to maintain, cause environmental harm or are redundant, such as trails that run parallel to one another or which lead to the same place. 

The plan would prevent any net increase in road or trail mileage within any visitor zone because of requirements that new construction be offset with at least an equal amount of decommissioning of existing roads or trails. 

“Ultimately, overall mileage may be less. If we do our job right, it will be less, but it will be a better functioning system,” said Ms. Holland. But, she added, “Whether that means there’s more people on that one trail, I think it’s really negligible… If one of the consequences is there might be more people, or more uses, I think we’re willing to accept that. I don’t think you’re going to see crowds of people where you didn’t see them before.”

Larry Nigro, a Fairfax resident and teacher at San Geronimo School, expressed concerns regarding the decommissioning of roads and trails in the most restrictive visitor use zone, worrying that fewer trails is antithetical to encouraging youths to bike or cavort in the outdoors. “We want to get the kids out,” he said.

The plan takes a variety of measures to protect crucial habitat, including a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal trail construction, which one staffer said had become “quite a management problem”; converting roads to trails when possible; and generally discouraging new trails in areas of undisturbed habitat. All users must also remain on established paths; previously, only bikers were penalized for veering off trails, but now all visitors will have to stay on the beaten path, according to Ms. Holland.

To address calls from bikers for increased opportunities in open space, the plan promises to strive to provide short to medium-sized loops and longer rides for bikers. So-called “extreme biking,” or biking faster than 15 miles an hour, is still prohibited, a provision carried over from previous regulations.

The plan also carries over proper user etiquette from current policies, which call for all users to yield to equestrians, and for bikers to yield to hikers and announce themselves with a bell or a yell when passing others. 

During public comment after the presentation, one equestrian said “enforcement, enforcement” was the key to curbing errant mountain bikers. “They want to get their jollies really fast,” she said. 

San Geronimo Valley resident Jean Berensmeier relayed frustrations about night bikers, whom she said are loud and may disturb wildlife. “You can hear them on their rides,” she told the Light, explaining that the valley is “in a bowl.” 

Roy Miska, deputy director of the department, said open space is open 24 hours a day and that there is no data on the impact of night riding on wildlife, and therefore nothing to base regulations on.

Mountain bikers repeatedly argued that there was only a minor contingent that rides illegally. “Most of us are extremely kind,” said one speaker wearing a Marin County Bicycle Coalition jersey.

Although many of the comments focused in bicycling, Ms. Berensmeier echoed a comment by Supervisor Kathrin Sears that the concerns of “foot people,” who are not as well organized as other coalitions, must also be heard.