What We Learned about the State Park Proposal to Restrict Access

Tonight, I attended the public hearing hosted by the California State Parks and presided over by Alexandra Stehl, Roads and Trails Manager for the California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR). The two hour hearing was an opportunity for concerned citizens comprising a vast spectrum of interests to speak their mind about the proposal. Additionally, CDPR representatives went through the trouble of attempting to explain and clarify just what the proposed restriction entails.

Here’s what we learned:

  • As we already stated in our previous article describing our understanding of the proposed restrictions, the proposal only affects state cultural reserves and preserves as well as state natural preserves and reserves. These properties either exist independently (reserves) or within larger state park units (preserves). The restriction would not limit any use outside of the preserves and reserves, which would leave the vast majority of Anza-Borrego, Cuyamaca Rancho, and Mt. San Jacinto State Parks unaffected.
  • The proposed amendment states:(a) No person shall leave designated trails, board walks or other designated routes of travel in Natural Preserves, Cultural Preserves, State Cultural Reserves, or State Natural Reserves within the California State Park System, unless approved by the Department. (b) Section (a) shall not restrict Department employees or their agents for the purpose of management, such as research, enforcement, rescue, or educational programs. Note: Authority cited: Sections 50 

    However, the CDPR representatives assured us repeatedly that they intend to allow the state park districts overseeing specific parks to continue to utilize their existing management plans. If so, the restriction would not affect Anza-Borrego in any way, as they would likely choose to continue using their existing management plans to oversee the 8 cultural preserves within the park.As is, the assurances of the CDPR clash directly with the proposed language. We won’t know which source to believe until we see the final language.Furthermore, a FAQ sheet provided by the CDPR indicated that “trail use” could occur in canyons, washes, mountain sides, and through other open lands in what appeared to be a clear concession to the typical use within Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

  • People were mad. I repeat, MAD. There was unanimous, 100%, no-punches-pulled objection to the proposed restriction. People LOVE their parks, and they don’t want to see anything taken away from them. Some people seemed to think that the restriction would affect all of the state park. Others were angry that the park would put something out like this and appear not to let anybody know about it until it got picked up by media outlets only days before the end of the 45 day public comment period. Others were angry at what they perceived as another example of the government trying to take another thing away from them. While I fully empathize will aspects of this anger, I also have to tip my hat to the CDPR reps for not losing their cool while receiving the anger from the crowd.
  • If you want to know what the State Park system is up to, or any other public agency for that matter, you really have to be paying attention. CDPR disseminated the proposed rule change (dry and legaleze though it is) in April through their email list, which they compile during public comment periods like this. CDPR also makes this information freely available to the news media, but news regarding use restrictions barely registers with most news outlets. As a result, the Union Tribune published their article about the proposal 5 days before the end of the public hearing, creating the impression that CDPR was trying to pull one over on us.Interestingly, CDPR has almost no social media presence, and their representatives need special permission to speak with the media about this kind of thing, so the lack of information led to a game of telephone where the public heard that large portions of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park would be off-limits. I wonder how tonight would have gone if the CDPR had an active social media presence explaining the nuances of the law rather than putting out an email blast to the handful of people who actually bother to read their emails anymore.
  • People do not trust CDPR, partially because of the perceived lack of communication, but partially because CDPR appeared to propose a restriction only to backpedal when people got really angry. We don’t know the inner workings of this department and therefore won’t speculate on motives, but at a time when people mistrust government to do anything in the people’s interest, people appear ready to assume the worst from government, even when it’s an organization as benign as the parks and rec department.
  • This whole thing got started due to a tiny natural preserve within Mt. San Jacinto State Park set aside to protect a rare species of flower growing within the meadows there. Apparently, a number of people had traveled off trail, thus damaging the habitat. This ostensibly led Mt. San Jacinto SP to request that CDPR propose this new amendment to give the park more teeth in enforcing policies to protect the preserve.This raises two issues:
    • This never would have happened had people learned to obey signs indicating that people stay off of out-of-bounds property. Yes, we get that there’s cool stuff off trail, but we can’t ignore our impact, especially when a place is as sensitive as say, Torrey Pines or Hidden Divide. If everybody knew how to behave properly when in natural areas, there would be no need for restrictions, and the CDPR wouldn’t have to punish law abiding hikers for the actions of the careless. Even if – especially if – you believe that the role of government is to do as little as possible, it is entirely on users to make sure we use an area responsibly. When CDPR sees consistent reports of habitat degradation caused by users who don’t know how to behave, can you really blame them for looking at creating more rules?
    • The biggest unanswered question of the night was how does anybody in CDPR expect existing ranger staffs to enforce restrictions when they can’t even police their current restrictions? Remember, the proposed rule does not include increased funding, so you can forget about more ranger presence and more educational outreach. Most state preserves are discrete, often isolated, parcels of land within massive state wildernesses. Many state parks are having a hard time keeping the bare minimum together given how dismal their funding is. What exactly is the point of going to all the trouble to create a restriction that raises an uproar when that restriction is next to useless given that nobody can enforce it?

At any rate, we will continue to monitor the situation. We hope that we can stay abreast of this restriction, as well as any future restrictions, rule-changes, and amendments. It’s clear to me that people desire transparency from the government. It’s clear to me that CDPR went well out of their way to allow people to have their say. It’s also clear to me that the means of creating that transparency are very poor in regard to how the state disseminates information.

But above all else, it is clearer to me now more than ever that we all have to do our part to tread lightly and protect the land we love. Given the myriad challenges the government faces in protecting natural spaces, invasive, overbearing restrictions or not, the people who use the land are in the best position to protect it from ourselves.

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