For those who are wondering when the Tunnel Trail or Jesusita will be re-opened in the Mission Canyon area, the answer seems to be pretty clear: not soon enough for some and way too soon for others.
First there is the question of rock fall, especially after the recent rain. Those who have seen the upper part of Mission Canyon know firsthand how devastated the area has been hit.
Recently I visited the area in the company of several USGS employees who were scouting out locations to place a weather station to monitor the winter storms. As we reached the locked gate at the top of Tunnel Road, the impact of the fire’s damage was immediate and to put it succinctly - overwhelming.
Simply put, with the exception of the lower canyons, a few small creases and the backsides of a handful of hillsides, the vegetation is gone. Though the hillsides are somewhat stable now, that may not be the case in October or November when the first major rainstorm hits.
The feeling is almost beyond words. This is country I’ve visited hundreds of times, smelled the aromas and walked up the road and trails without a thought to what the hillsides might look like if stripped bare. Most of the rocks and dirt-covered slopes are black, more vertical looking without the thin mantle of chaparral vegetation, and fragile looking at best. Thousands of rocks cling to the hillsides with nothing but a few bits of dirt to keep them in place. Many will come tumbling down, whether next week or in the first storm, no one can say for sure.
Another one of the difficulties that concerns Santa Barbara City and Forest officials is the ability to head off trail more or less anywhere along miles of trails. With little to hold the hillsides in place, having hundreds of people scrambling anywhere is worrisome. Not only does this impact erosion issues but there is a tremendous potential for rock to come tumbling down on the trails or roads below. Then there is also the potential to cut switchbacks, create new routes to other parts of the trails, especially Tunnel Trail, which has almost no vegetation its entire length.
While trail enthusiasts may scream at the thought of the trails being closed for some additional period of time - throughout the summer months for instance - the argument can be made that by doing so will not only allow residents in Mission Canyon the opportunity to rebuild their lives without having to deal with the traffic that comes with trail access, but provide time to do more than the usual minimal maintenance to them.
As a long-time trail user, I’ve been out on our local front country trails in most every type of weather or season. I’ve seen them in good times and bad, from the ultimate in experience to mucking my way through tons of mud as a part of the efforts to clean up the mess after the 2005 flood season.
Along with hundreds of others I’ve helped rebuild them, not to perfection, but to withstand another few years of use.
These are trails that were designed for another era or users and another century’s idea of what a trail should be. Now we have an opportunity to take a timeout, a deep breath, and spend a few months looking at how we might rebuild these trails to serve 21st Century needs.
The point may be a moot one: either those who clamor for them to be open will force the issue and the fire-damaged trails will open in a few weeks or those who demand that they stay closed will have their way but no one will jump on what is a rare chance to rebuild the trails.
Regardless, the opportunity is there to consider how best to take this time to rebuild the trails and how to go about it.