At the most recent Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force meeting on the front country trails, Chairman Steve Forsell pondered what might have been the most important question asked yet. “Is there a group out there the three agencies can partner with?” he asked.
Deputy City Park Director Jill Zachary echoed the Forsell’s concern that the agencies are ill equipped to manage the trails themselves. “I’m seeing the need to bring the various trail users together into some form of a cooperative group,” she said. “Remember that the original Trail Working Group recommended there be such an umbrella organization.”
It seems clear to me the Task Force is finally getting the message: there are no easy solutions, there is no one decision the agencies can make that will solve the issue of user safety and no way the three separate agencies can manage a joint set of trails.
For me and a number of others who have been involved in front country trail issues for many years and have studied all of our trail management options carefully, it seems clear that it is time for the City, the County and the Forest Service to place the responsibility for the trails in the hands of an organization which can bridge the jurisdictional gaps and work on behalf of the entire community.
This brings me back to Steve Forsell’s question: Is there a group out there the three agencies can partner with? Assuming there is and that the Task Force gets it that a partnership is essential to moving ahead, now is the time to begin exploring the development of such a relationship.
Essential to this discussion is the type of qualities we want in a partner. Having been a member of the Front Country Trail Working Group earlier, chair for the interim Trails Alliance more recently and closely involved with all of the agencies, I’d like to share my thoughts regarding the qualities I think an ideal partner should have.
Serve as a Trail Umbrella
Perhaps most important, a trail partner should be representative of the various local trail organizations but more importantly, work towards the interests of all user groups including hikers, equestrians, joggers and mountain bikers. Such an umbrella will by necessity need to have representation from all of the major trail groups (Los Padres Trail Rider, Montecito Trails Foundation, SB Mountain Trail Volunteers, Sierra Club, Multi-Use Trails Coalition among others) as well as representation from members of the community. It should also include liaisons from each of the agencies and it should have the capability of developing partnerships with local businesses, trail organizations, other private organizations such as Elings Park or the Parma Foundation – even other agencies such as the cities of Carpinteria and Goleta or the State Parks.
To develop an organization which has the breadth necessary to making it successful, it should be capable of managing a trails network that encompasses more than just the seven identified front country trails. Building a trail network that meets everyone’s needs requires looking at the entire South Coast and not just a select group of trails. We need to look at the trails as a regional system, one that ranges from Gaviota to Carpinteria and includes the urban areas as well. A trail’s partner should be capable of managing such an area and not just a few of the trails.
Support Master Planning
One of the most critical tasks facing those of us working on trail-related issues today is the development of a trail plan that works for all trail users. Currently, there is very little comprehensive trail planning taking place. Given the mix of jurisdictions responsible for our local trails, no wonder this is the case. One of the key recommendations of the Trail Working Group was the creation of a trail planning process that could be used to guide us over the long term. There is a distinct need for an organization that can do the type of trail planning that cuts across all of the jurisdictions to help us build a comprehensive trail network.
Develop Trail Volunteer Program
A major reason the front country trails are in as good condition as they are is due to the incredible efforts that have been made by our volunteers. To build on this success, one of the primary charges a trail management organization should have is the development of an even bigger and better volunteer program than we already have. This should not only include those who wish to help us maintain the trails but to work on the planning issues, develop the education and signing we need, do the trail patrols and act as hosts at the trailheads. Managing a community trails network is a huge task and one that needs a strong volunteer program.
Building trails to meet today’s multi-user environment or maintaining those we already have is much more complicated than ever. A trail managing partner should have the expertise in trail design and building techniques, be capable of running a professional trail crew or training the volunteer corps. Most importantly, it should have the skills and knowledge to maintain them in a way that makes them safe for all trail users.
Every user group seems to agree on one thing: we need way more educational information in the hands of those who are using the trails. Developing good trail etiquette and environmental information is absolutely essential. More importantly, building a set of expectations among all trail users for how they should conduct themselves while out on the trails is crucial. To the extent we include all trail users in the development of the materials through the volunteer programs we will be far more successful.
A partner should also be capable of working well with all of the public agencies and building the type of relationships that allow it to work across jurisdictions. One of the key tasks will be to work with all of the agencies to create an effective management program. That includes signing, trailhead information, trail standards and trail planning efforts. An ideal partner should also be capable of extending its relationship with other agencies as the need arises. This would include the cities of Goleta and Carpinteria at some point as well as private organizations.
Call for a Partnership
Now is the time for the Task Force to begin an earnest effort towards the development of a partnership with a local organization to manage the front country trails.
One of the reasons the Trail Working Group called for a two year long odd-even program for the front country trails was to provide the breathing space needed to help develop an umbrella group, begin trail master planning, create educational materials and build the infrastructure necessary to trail management.
The next order of business for the Task Force should be focused on finding the managing partner which can help us begin building that infrastructure.