A plan to manage roads and trails in the Marin County Open Space District—the first comprehensive effort since a ballot initiative created the district in 1972—has ignited a firestorm of criticism about limitations to recreational access, particularly in the San Geronimo Valley and around Bolinas Lagoon, where the highest restrictions are

At a public hearing that stretched late into Tuesday night, dozens of local hikers, dog walkers, mountain bikers and equestrians assembled before the Parks and Open Space Commission at the Civic Center to voice their concerns about the draft Road and Trail Management Plan released last month. The document sets out policies to reorganize nearly 280 miles of unpaved roads and trails to protect natural habitats and address safety issues. 

Although the meeting was supposed to focus on the merits of a 500-page environmental impact report, many of the 60 speakers used their two minutes before the commission to bash the plan for closing beloved trails, failing to address the growing needs of mountain bikers, banning off-trail experiences and limiting off-leash dogs.

The public comment period on the plan will continue until December 2, with a vote on the final approval expected in spring.

Marin County Parks Director Linda Dahl says the plan is needed to create a network of trails that will optimize user experience and be sustainable in the long term. 

Over the last four decades, the district has expanded to include 34 preserves, covering nearly 16,000 acres. Most of the trails were inherited as old ranching or fire roads or constructed informally through repeated use, she said, leading to a system characterized by redundancy, irregular maintenance, conflicts between users and damage to natural resources.

“A lot of the existing trails are not desirable,” Ms. Dahl said. “What we’re going to do is build better trails and make connections that don’t currently exist.” 

But decommissioning trails was the primary concern for a large number of the speakers at Tuesday’s meeting. Many expressed affection for the trails they use now, and questioned how they will be able to immerse themselves in nature if trails are decommissioned and off-trail hiking is prohibited.

In the most highly restricted areas—Gary Giacomini, Cascade Canyon and the Bolinas Lagoon—two acres of trails will be decommissioned for each acre affected by new trail construction, and a one-to-one ratio will govern new trails in the second strictest areas—French Ranch, Maurice Thorner Memorial, Roy’s Redwoods, Loma Alta and White Hill.

“I’ve been using these trails personally for 20 years. Being in the woods has been a formative experience in my life,” said Devin Wilson, a Woodacre resident and college student who created a website to protest the plan. “I’m horrified that we’re losing the opportunity to experience the incredibly beautiful natural surrounding.”

Larry Nigro, an elementary school teacher in the Lagunitas School District, said he bikes through the Giacomini preserve every morning on his commute to work, enjoying the rabbits and spiderwebs he spots along the trail. He is worried the trail would be decommissioned or routed into a less restrictive zone, but said he would not easily give up a trail that’s been such an important part of his life (he even biked along it to his wedding, he said).

“[The plan is] going to lead to trail building by locals who feel left out. We won’t be immersed in nature, we’ll be immersed in conflict,” Mr. Nigro said.  

Others questioned the plan’s long-term viability, claiming it will lead to overcrowded trails. Although in the early stages the 2:1 acreage ratio might work, eventually the district will be unable to find roads and trails to retire, said Vernon Huffman, a Woodacre resident. 

The plan maintains that eliminating redundancy could reduce trail mileage without causing a significant impact, as 27 percent of the trails lead from the same origin to the same end point.

But this view suggests that a trail’s only purpose is to reach a certain destination, Mr. Wilson said. “In their minds, two different trails with different surroundings are identical for all purposes,” he said. It misses the point of “actually visiting the forest or being there for the experience.”

Bikers, too, saw the redundancy as an opportunity to reduce conflicts between users by spreading out use across trails with designated priorities for certain groups. They claim their needs are being inadequately addressed, with only nine miles of trails in the whole system devoted to them, even as the plan states bikers constitute 23 percent of trail users. Their desire for more rather than fewer trails was the most common refrain on Tuesday, echoed by young people on high school teams and older mountain bikers alike.

About an hour into the meeting, Ms. Dahl interrupted the proceeding and leaned into her microphone: “I’ve tried to refute some things that are misleading, but I’m hearing something new I want to refute right now. People think that we’re reducing trails through this plan.”

Her voice was drowned out in an uproar from the back of the room. “You are!” “You are!” “You already have!”

“I want to say,” she continued, “that the policies in the plan say there will be no net increase and no net decrease of the trails. We inherited a system of old ranch roads and fire roads that are not optimum. They’re not fun.”

“Not fun!” someone shouted. “How do you know?”

“There will be no net increase and no net decrease,” she said. “I just wanted to make that clear.”

The environmental impact report, however, states five times that policies will encourage decommissioning, “potentially lessening the mileage of the road and trail system over time.” It continues, “Due to the [plan’s] systemwide goals and policies… the overall road and trail system mileage would likely remain the same, or decrease.”

In the most restrictive zone, where mileage will be limited, those who travel off trails will be subject to heightened fines. 

But criminalizing the use of open space is wrongheaded, John Reed, the mayor of Fairfax, told the commission. Instead of having a supportive community who will care for the trails, banning off-trail use will lead to resistance from the public, he said.

William Binzen, a photographer from Woodacre, said the district was “ripping the word ‘open’ out of open space.” “You can’t do a macro shot of a flower or admire a waterfall, because none of these things exist on the beaten path.”

Someone even presented a limerick: “As for following the Native American way,/we love to explore, amble and stray,/to find the quiet spot./My freedom can’t be bought;/your covert travesty, I’ll certainly not obey.”

A small minority came to the plan’s defense, emphasizing its environmental benefits. Jean Berensmeier, the chairman of the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group and one of the district’s original commissioners, faulted previous speakers for selfishly pursuing their own desires in the midst of real damage to natural resources. 

“Our purpose in those days was to preserve the wildlife, the plants. There were no bikes, no runners, no dogs,” Ms. Berensmeier said. “You have to put the environment first, and that trumps the misinformation, the selfishness and the rudeness that seems acceptable in our culture and that has been expressed in this room.”

When everyone had said their piece, the commissioners briefly responded to the hours of testimony. Dennis Scremin told the audience he appreciated the level of energy brought before the commission, and then turned to the parks department staff.

“You started off with a statement that everyone felt included,” he said. “But if you really listen, it feels like you’ve alienated every user group here.”