Park hopes for new loops on ranch roads

10/07/2020

Public use and enjoyment of around 28,000 acres of ranchlands in the Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern district of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a key element of the general management plan amendment that the National Park Service could finalize as soon as this month. 

Among the goals set to enhance the visitor experience is a list of hopeful trail improvements that provide access to roads on ranches. The final environmental impact statement on the amendment, released last month and pending approval by the park’s regional director, outlines how the changes will make key connections to existing trails and create longer routes and loops for multiple users, including bicyclists, equestrians and hikers.

Tom Boss, the off-road and events coordinator for the Marin Bicycle Coalition, had proposed some of the ideas to the park service and was excited they might be pursued. “People want the opportunity to explore, versus being stuck riding in places that are very congested,” he said. “New opportunities can reduce the impact on other users while also providing new experiences.” 

The trail improvements are not set in stone. Melanie Gunn, the seashore’s outreach coordinator, explained that they were included in the park’s chosen land management strategy as hopeful projects and are dependent on securing funding as well as further environmental review. By contrast, the park has committed to implementing specific strategies regarding its ranching operations and tule elk herds. 

The proposed trail changes pertain to both the seashore and the northern district of G.G.N.R.A. The first is to use an old road grade to connect Pierce Point Road, which extends north across the peninsula, to L Ranch Road, thereby facilitating access between Tomales Point and Marshall Beach. The short, roughly mile-long road creates the opportunity for a new loop. 

The park also suggested connecting L Ranch Road to Kehoe Beach Trail, which descends to Kehoe Beach on the west side of the peninsula, by opening up an old road alignment through the K Ranch. That would allow movement between the western shore of Tomales Bay and the ocean. 

To the south, there are a number of proposed changes in and around Drakes Estero, including creating a new loop starting from the existing Estero Trailhead and connecting with roads on the N Ranch, which borders the estero. In addition, an old ranch road could provide a new connection between the estero and Drakes Beach. The park says it also wants to explore a new alignment, a pilot project, that would highlight the estero only for pedestrians, though the agency did not map it.  

In the proposal that most closely approaches a residence, the park recommends creating a new loop that connects the existing Estero Trail with roads on the Home Ranch, where the Lucchesi family lives and headquarters its ranching operations. The park says it will consider new alignments around the designated core area, which includes the residence and the ranch buildings.

There is also a suggestion for creating a new trailhead on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, allowing hiking to the site of the Naval Radio Compass Station, which was established in 1920 on the southern stretch of the Great Beach. Most of the station was torn down but the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognized as a key aspect of maritime navigation along the Pacific Coast.

In the Olema Valley, which falls in the north district of G.G.N.R.A., the park outlines the possibility of using an existing ranch road to connect the Bolinas Ridge Trail—which picks up on the ridge above Bolinas and runs nearly 11 miles north—to Five Brooks. That would create another new loop and allow users to return south on different trails. 

Another recommendation for G.G.N.R.A. land was to create a new trail that uses the Cheda ranch in Tocaloma, where there is grazing but where no one has lived for at least a decade, as a trailhead. 

Some of the trails would compel new infrastructure on ranches. The final E.I.S. notes, “NPS would collaborate with ranchers on the location and/or form of the step-overs or crossings across active ranchlands and on methods to ensure minimal disruption to ranch operations (e.g., self-closing or spring-loaded swing gates with simple signage that would help ensure that gates are closed once people pass through).” 

Increased interpretation and mapping are another part of the park’s vision. “NPS would develop public information and safety messages to support recreational activities that involve walking through active pastures without defined trail alignments,” the plan states, adding:  “Ranch operations and private housing would be considered when determining the locations of these routes and alignments.”

Those commitments are key for Kevin Lunny, a third-generation beef rancher. He said the proposed trails largely keep their distance from ranch operations, and that it’s not atypical for members of the public to wander onto the ranches already. More attention to the operation of gates and clear guidance for the public about designated routes were welcome improvements and would help ensure safety, he said. 

Mr. Boss of the bicycle coalition emphasized that pains should be taken to not disrupt daily ranch operations. He also said the improvements may not end up increasing bicycle users; rather, any new trails simply increase options, helping to spread out bicyclists from congested trails elsewhere in the seashore. Many of the proposed routes would be rugged, accessible only to bikers comfortable with dirt and gravel terrain. 

Looking five to 10 years in the future, Mr. Boss hopes the seashore will provide a good place for more experienced bikers to take long day trips or even camp.  

Currently, the park has just 15 miles of trails open to bikes, including the Estero Trail, the Olema Valley Trail and the Inverness Ridge Trail. Another 14 miles of fire roads are open to bikes. The park provides significantly more access for equestrians, who are allowed into the Phillip Burton Wilderness and have closer to 115 miles of trails. 

Ms. Gunn said the user groups for new trails would be determined on a case-by-case basis in a separate environmental review process, though the goal is to accommodate multiple user groups. 

Rick Holland, the president of the Marin Horse Council, supports new, multi-use trail connections. In comments provided to the park service on the draft environmental impact statement, the council did not focus on trails, however; rather, it lent support for the continuation of ranching operations. 

Mr. Lunny said he was especially supportive of the park’s intention to improve education and interpretation on ranchlands.

The new plan states, “NPS would explore new opportunities, techniques, and contemporary media to interpret park resources and ranching in the planning area and would collaborate with ranchers and other park partners, such as Point Reyes National Seashore Association or park concessioners, on interpretive messaging, programs, and other techniques to share the story of multi-generational ranching in the park.” 

It continues, “As ranch operations diversify and engage in additional public serving activities, NPS would collaborate with ranchers to identify opportunities to integrate interpretive and educational messaging and programming.”

The E.I.S. also looked closely at managing visitation. Although it does not envision exponential growth, it acknowledges crowding and congestion. The plan establishes thresholds for parking, complaints and waste that trigger increased park management. If visitation approaches a 25 percent increase above the 2017 visitation number—2,456,669—the park will step in, including by exploring a new permit and reservation system during peak times.

The plan pays special attention to the areas in which it is proposing trail improvements. In some cases, the park might explore vehicle shuttle systems to transport bikes to trailheads or the development of trip planning tools, a reservation system and parking fees. In all cases, the trail improvements were thought to help redistribute public users throughout the seashore, helping to alleviate crowding and expand recreation opportunities.