On weekends, in the canyons surrounding San Diego’s community of Tierrasanta, urban guerrillas hack through chapparal with picks and other tools, transforming once-narrow coyote paths into smooth, broad hiking trails.
The urban vigilantes have carved miles of trails through the open space that surrounds Tierrasanta. Construction of trails has occurred for the better part of 20 years. What initially was an attempt to connect fragmented trails turned to an all-out mission to build first-class trails in Tierrasanta.
Many of the trailblazers serve on Tierrasanta’s Open Space Committee, an advisory group to the city’s Open Space Division, which makes it likely that they knew the trail-cutting required permits — permits they never acquired.
Now, a small contingent of residents has emerged to expose the illegal nature of the trail work. Digging into the matter, they discovered that not only was the city aware of the work but plans to issue permits for trails cut illegally.
A newly built wooden bench sits at the south end of a cul de sac on La Cuenta Drive. Five feet from the bench begins a steep, thousand-foot slope leading into a narrow canyon. This is the beginning to the La Cuenta trail, Tierrasanta’s largest and newest trail.
To help hikers to manage the steep drop-off, trailblazers cleared a series of six switchbacks that lead to the canyon below. After descending into the canyon, the trail, outlined with rocks, weaves through the dense woody foliage. Every few hundred feet, neatly piled branches and dead bushes dry and decompose. A half mile or so to the south, a hiker arrives at what is known as the Cross Country Trail. Outfitted with wooden steps, it links the La Cuenta, Rueda, and Road Runner trails. The steps, the switchbacks, the trails — all were made without permits.
Emails between open-space investigators from the parks and recreation department and residents reveal that city staff were aware of the trail-cutting.
“I see the trail work you have done at the La Cuenta location,” wrote former San Diego open-space investigator Jan Eby to committee member Roberta Froome on October 17, 2008. “Although it isn’t horrible, it is more than was ever authorized. It appears as though the group has crossed over the line between ‘maintenance’ and decided to get into trail construction.”
“This puts the city and the [maintenance assessment district] on the liability hook as it obviously looks constructed, therefore routine maintenance is necessary and safety is implied….”
And while Eby appeared concerned about the work, subsequent emails showed that she was aware of the trail-makers’ motivations.
“It was discussed at our open space meetings to keep it all down to a dull roar, don’t draw attention to and advertise, don’t build....” she wrote. “I depended on you to ‘keep the boys in check’, as you and I had discussed a few times....”
Illegal trail-building has been a problem throughout San Diego for some time. In August 2013, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife warned the city that non-permitted trails were popping up throughout Mission Trails Regional Park, just a few miles from Tierrasanta.
“[W]e believe the construction and use of unauthorized trails has far exceeded the level of impact anticipated by the [Multiple Species Conservation Program and] has directly and adversely impacted sensitive biological resources, and threatens Mission Trails Regional Park’s function as a core biological area and regional wildlife corridor within the [Multi-Habitat Planning Area],” reads the letter. “We are especially concerned that the current level of management and enforcement directed to this area is not effective in addressing the unauthorized impacts to [the regional park.]”
Despite the warnings, five years since open-space investigators first became aware of the severity, the La Cuenta trail and others in canyons outlining Tierrasanta remain.
Instead of remediation, the city plans to issue permits after the fact.
“A group of citizens took it upon themselves to build this trail system,” says longtime resident and member of the open-space committee, Jennifer Cochrane Schultz. “This was, and still is, illegal. Our city code makes this abundantly clear. These citizens were entirely aware of this. Sadly, the Open Space Division allowed this activity to go on unabated for more than ten years and are now trying to backtrack by having the [Tierrasanta Community Council] make changes to its community plan.”
Continues Schultz, “These trails were excavated in some people’s backyards. The question here is; ‘Have these people ever been asked if they want trails in the canyons behind them?”
“Has there been any kind of public hearing or a public study of the recreational needs of these neighborhoods, from the property owner’s point of view? The answer to this is ‘no.’”
Aside from residents hiking down canyons wielding picks and axes to clear brush for trails, there are issues as to how the city and community plan to pay for the permits and associated environmental reports. To do that, city staff recommends the community’s maintenance assessment district pick up the tab for the $21,000 environmental study, a dangerous path for the city to take, say some residents.
According to the district’s engineer’s report, assessments are intended for the maintenance of dedicated open space, such as walking trails, picnic areas and benches. The report makes no mention of paying for the construction of trails.
Cochrane Schultz’s attempts at righting the wrongs in Tierrasanta’s canyons have so far been rebuffed.
“As for the La Cuenta trail, from what I understand, the group took responsibility for that and we are now trying to permit that trail,” wrote Chris Zirkle, director of the city’s Open Space Division. “In regards to the trails being widened…the existing trails have had little to no change to them.... [U]ntil a final trails plan is approved and permitted, [the trail blazers] have been restricted to only conducting maintenance on established trails. Our hope is that through the permitting process unauthorized impacts will be addressed, including the recommendation for closure of some trails that are not safe and sustainable.”
Cochrane Schultz worries that by retroactively permitting illegally constructed trails, San Diego’s parks and recreation department may be clearing the way for other communities to follow suit.
“Trails are a good thing,” she says, “but our open-space corridors are part of the [Multiple Species Conservation Program] and as such require special planning for the building of trails in order to preserve the sensitive environments and habitat. No one likes to hear this but these preserves are meant to be just that, preserves. Let’s select sites for trails, parks, campgrounds, etc., based on thoughtful planning and community consultation before the fact, and leave the rest alone for future appreciation and the maintenance of a moderately healthy environment.
“The Open Space Division has already received a reprimand of sorts from Fish and Wildlife for the illegal activity in [Mission Trails Regional Park]. Now they are backtracking in Tierrasanta, trying to permit the illegal work. So, are they opening the proverbial can or worms? I think so.”
(None of the alleged trailblazers reached for this report would comment.)