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Trail user groups riding path to cooperation

Santa Barbara News-Press 31 October 2004

Ray Ford

Over the past two years, representatives from many of the leading trail user groups have been meeting as the Santa Barbara Front Country Trail Working Group in an effort to work out differences and come to a consensus as to how to deal with user conflict issues on the front country trails.

In a sense, our purpose was to do something other groups in the 1980s and '90s had failed to do, which was develop a set of trusting relationships among the group members so we could work towards meaningful solutions. Doing this was not easy, but over a period of more than two years, members of the trail working group moved beyond the fixed positions that had led to failure in the past to a heartfelt understanding that we needed to work together as a larger trail community to solve the issues before us.

Surprisingly, in August, the TWG -- including representatives from the Sierra Club, Santa Barbara Mountain Trail Volunteers, Los Padres Trail Riders, CRAHTAC, as well as area homeowners -- reached consensus on a proposal for the front country trails. This was a historic moment and should be recognized as such.

For the first time in our local history, trail user groups came together to forge a coalition to deal not only with user conflict issues but environmental concerns, trail access issues and a means of working with the government agencies -- city parks, county parks and the Forest Service -- to provide the maintenance our trails deserve.

The TWG proposal embraces a number of concepts that were not easy for some of the members to accept. But rather than adhere to the fixed positions, which had doomed the previous efforts to failure, there was an acceptance that we needed to find a middle ground, one that would meet the basic needs of all trail users without unduly penalizing any of them.

For the first time, the Sierra Club, for instance, accepted the right of mountain bikers to use the front country trails. SBMTV, which represented the mountain bike community in the meetings, agreed to a proposal to limit mountain bike use on a number of the front country trails for an interim period of two years. I applaud each of these groups for their ability to be flexible enough to help us work to begin working on the larger issues.

On the other hand, I was sorely disappointed to see a Sept. 27 article, "Trail groups propose limits for mountain bikers," on the TGW focus in detail on the odd-even aspects of the TWG proposal.

Our proposal to limit mountain bike use to the front country trails either to odd or even days for the next two years was never intended to be a solution in and of itself. Rather, it was designed to allow us the breathing room we need to develop new trail access, rehabilitate existing trails and to develop the trail education and environmental information needed to help resolve current user conflict issues.

Success in dealing with the issues relating to the front country trails will not be measured by the odd-even designation; it will not provide us with access to the Santa Ynez Mountains in areas such as Goleta, Carpinteria or the Gaviota area, or help us develop a trails network that meets all of our trail user's needs.

It won't help us maintain our trails or rehabilitate those no longer meeting safe or acceptable standards. Nor will it help us deal with the environmental issues that come with having 50,000 or more users on the trails each year.

This will come from the other proposals that received scant attention in the article. These include: the creation of a "trails alliance" composed of community organizations and individuals to work with the public agencies to begin building a comprehensive plan for recreational use along the front country slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains; the development of trail and environmental information, as well as education programs designed to alleviate user conflicts and environmental problems; and the creation of a trail hosts program with volunteers at trailheads and on the trails to act as "trail stewards" to help ensure our trails are protected and people are educated.

The Trail Working Group has provided us with a huge accomplishment. As a diverse collection of trail users, we now know we can overcome our differences, we can listen to the concerns and needs of the others who use the trails and be flexible enough to help them meet their needs, and most of all -- the TWG has demonstrated a willingness to continue the work over the next two years through the trails alliance to build a plan for the future.
The author is a local writer of trail user guides and is executive director of the Los Padres Forest Association.