April 29, 2003
County asserts claim to trails
Some fear the transfer would open backcountry
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Tired of Washington regulators who close backcountry trails and roads in the name of environmental protection, San Diego County is trying to win control of federal land so it can let people visit places that are now off-limits.
It remains to be seen whether the county builds new roads and trails or opens existing ones in areas such as the Cleveland National Forest and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. But the county has asserted its right to do so under a federal rule that has caused outrage in environmental circles nationwide.
County officials said the action will help them with an ambitious plan – to be presented to the public as early as next week – to build or improve 800 miles of trails, some of them on land now controlled by the federal government, including wilderness closed to the public. But it could also give the county a say in whether roads on environmentally sensitive land can stay open to the public.
"We have had trails closed because (federal authorities) figured they were impacting plants and animals," said Robert Christopher, land development manager for the county's Public Works Department. "This was without hardly any notice and over county objections.
"These agencies get hold of land, and they have a mission, and that mission is protection of habitat or something. But I don't think anybody expects that we should use (taxpayer) money to buy this land, then fence it off so (people) can't use it."
Environmentalists fear that once such roads are under local control, counties may be pressured to allow mining, ranching, logging, motorists and off-road users in the areas.
They point out that San Bernardino County – acting at the behest of off-road enthusiasts, ranchers and mining interests – wants to claim 2,567 miles of roads in the Mojave National Preserve. Riverside and other counties want to claim land in Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks.
"I don't think (San Diego) county intends to pave all these trails into highways, but this gives them the right to do things like that," said Keith Hammond, spokesman for the California Wilderness Coalition. "Even if the county's intentions are good, others who want to drive in wilderness areas and national parks will use this to say, 'We have a congressionally granted right' " to do so.
Christopher said because almost all the roads in question are in rural areas, "I doubt we would want to pave any other than with decomposed granite or gravel."
In February, President Bush allowed counties to use a Civil War-era rule to claim control over local roads and trails. The rule, RS 2477, says that if they can prove the public used a road or trail for transportation after 1866 – and before 1976 when the rule was repealed – then the public has a right to keep using the road, even if it now sits on land closed off to protect sensitive plants, animals and terrain.
In California, six counties including San Diego have used the rule to lay broad claims to some 10 million acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. This is a step each must take before specifying the roads they want to control, which San Diego County officials have yet to do.
Areas where San Diego officials might identify roads include the Cleveland National Forest and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The latter, though controlled by the state, could fall under the rule because the federal government once owned it.
A year ago, the BLM began a plan to carve the 600,000-acre desert park into segments with new restrictions for mountain bikers, equestrians, motorists and campers. The U.S. Forest Service has angered San Diegans by barricading streams in the Cleveland Forest to protect an endangered toad. Last month, the service temporarily closed three forest campgrounds to protect breeding animals.
"There were complaints that trails on state and federal lands that had been open to the public for years and years all of a sudden had been arbitrarily closed off to horseback riders and hikers," said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose constituent complained about the closings of other popular trails in Anza-Borrego. "Our tax dollars are being spent to purchase and preserve these lands, but also the land belongs to the people, and the people should be allowed to use it."
Parts of Fallbrook, Valley Center and Ramona have federally owned parcels that county officials want to control. And the 18,500-acre Otay Mountain Wilderness Area – protected three years ago to salvage rare and endangered plants and animals – could have trails and roads that existed prior to 1866.
BLM officials said all the Otay Wilderness is open to the public for hiking, horseback riding, camping and hunting. Bicycles, mountain bikes, cars and other motorized vehicles are not allowed except on a road that bisects the wilderness. But Christopher said trail users complain that the BLM closed some trails without warning. And because the BLM will soon decide how the public can use 1,000 new acres on Otay Mountain, getting control of roads, he said, will prevent burdensome restrictions in the future.
To prove that a road existed in an area between 1866 and 1976, local officials will use aerial photos – some taken as long ago as 1928 – to show where a route is. They must describe what the road was used for, and convince BLM officials their new plan to use it is worthy.
"It's such a controversial and sensitive issue," said Greg Hill, one of the BLM's San Diego County project managers. "We could say there's no road there, and someone else could say, 'Yes, there is.' "
Daniel Greenstadt, an officer of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, said mountain bikers – who aren't allowed in any federally protected wilderness – are happy to protect open space.
"But we're also concerned about the heavy hand of the land managers who . . . make decisions that are poorly communicated to the public, or poorly justified, or outright capricious," he said.