After taking the month of August off, the Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force was in session again this month. The primary purpose of the meeting was the presentation of alternative approaches to addressing trail use conflict.

One might have thought from the agenda that the Task Force was closing in on some sort of proposal the commissioners could take back to their respective agencies. This is definitely not the case: there will most likely be lots more of what are becoming mind-numbing meetings before any recommendations will be on the table.

As is typical with each of the Task Force meetings, at the start of this one a handful of mountain bikers dutifully headed up to the podium to remind commissioners that there really aren’t any problems and that all of the trails should stay open for downhill bike riding. Of course they cleverly camouflaged their identify by saying that they are also avid hikers as well, as if somehow the rest of won’t know they are actually mountain bikers at heart.

Then there were also comments offered by two members of the Sierra Club Executive Committee who were outraged by the fact that nothing was shared at the meeting about a recent risk management workshop co-hosted by the city of Santa Barbara. They warned the Task Force that the local agencies were courting serious legal and financial troubles should they continue to allow mountain bikes on the trails.

Of course they didn’t mention the fact that prior to the meeting a Sierra Club representative had conversations with workshop speaker Doug Wyseman and provided him with materials that included a video of a bike rider pounding his way down Cold Springs Trail. Interestingly, a number of times during the talk, according to several mountain bikers who attended the workshop, Wyseman made fairly negative comments about mountain bikes on the local trails even though he’s never been on any of them. One wonders the efficacy of a discussion of risk management if it involves the demonization of one of our local trail user groups (mountain bikers) as it appears did occur at the workshop. Isn’t risk management about understanding the risk involved so you can mitigate all of them? Or is it to be used conveniently to deprive one group from using the trails?

The type of behavior exhibited above is becoming typical of each of the Task Force meetings. Where user group leaders once talked together in Trail Working Group meetings, this process does not encourage dialogue. Rather, user group leaders are pitted one against the other as they attempt to influence the decision-making process in their presentations or rebut arguments made by others. During the TWG meetings these same leaders worked together on the issues. Now they work in a process that is polarizing the various user groups.

Is the Task Force Process Working?

The meat of the September meeting came from staff reports relating to trail user etiquette, odd-even trail days and shared multi-use trails – though much of the information was presented in such scanty detail as not to be of much value to those in the audience.

I wondered: didn’t the Trail Working Group present similar proposals to the Forest Service, City and County almost three years ago? For someone (me) who was present in the mid-1980s when the first trail use discussions took place, stuck around for a second round in the 1990s and survived the five-year period of trail use discussions that got us to the creation of this Task Force, I’m how much more of this I can put up with. Which leads me to a number of questions that beg for discussion – at least for me.

Why weren’t local citizen experts a part of the trail group?

With little exception, though perhaps politically savvy, the current commission members do not have the kind of in-depth knowledge of the trails, trail conditions, trail building or maintenance practices or the knowledge of trail user needs to craft a well-designed trail use policy.

There are no “simple” solutions to building a trail network for the Santa Barbara Front Country. Odd-Even is not a long-term solution. It may be the best interim solution to provide the time needed to craft a longer-term solution but it is no more a final solution than closing a single trail to mountain bikes and feeling the job has been done.

Local citizens who’ve been involved with our trails for years understand this: developing policy isn’t a matter of finding the right compromise; it is in understanding complex issues that face us (typography, geology, trail user needs, safety issues, locations of trails, potential for new trails) within a larger trail network that includes urban, hillside, mountain and backcountry trails.

Will the Task Force get the information it needs to make appropriate decisions?

When I was reporting on the Zaca Fire I was reminded again and again how important it was that the Incident Commanders had the best field information possible. The same should hold true here: if you don’t know the territory, you need to find a way to get the knowledge as soon as you can.

Not only should every Task Force member have walked at least two of the trails by now (divided such to avoid Brown Act issues), but have been accompanied by local trail experts to help them understand all of the issues. A walk down Cold Springs, Tunnel or San Ysidro trails might have provided more information than a year of hearings has yielded. Fire officials call this “building situational awareness” – and it is critical to every decision they make; it should be on our trails too.

Will trail assessment studies ever be done?

To date, there is no accurate information about any of the trails involved in the Task Force process. Professional trail builders and trail managers understand the need to build a database of information about the trails they care for. This includes detailed information about the entire trail – grade, side slope, trail width, line of sight, danger or choke points, suitability for mitigation – to give them the type of information that allows them to make “fully-informed” decisions.

Without such surveys on every trail, what will the Task Force use as the basis for the decisions it makes about each of them?

Will the Task Force ever decide what a multi-use trail is?

One of the ironies of this process is that even with good information you need standards to which you can apply what you’ve learned. Defining multi-use can be tricky: if you aren’t careful, by the nature of your definition you can include or exclude user groups.

One group may tell you that a trail can’t be considered multi-use if the overall grade exceeds 10%; another if the tread isn’t at least four feet wide. Geology, user types and numbers, percentage of time a trail exceeds certain guidelines, sight lines, the capacity to mitigate issues – all can be used to provide guidance, but ultimately understanding what constitutes a multi-use trail may be the most critical decision the Task Force makes.

Will the Task Force find a way to bring people together?

I am told the Task Force will be hosting several workshops soon, perhaps in November and December, as a complement to the current format. Perhaps that will help provide the type of interaction that get us away from the confrontational process that is occurring now.

Currently, this process has not been good for those of us who care for our local trails and wish to be a part of a community-building process. Here, hikers and equestrian groups are being pitted again mountain bikers, groups that represent users from one part of town against those from another. This is not good for any of us.


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