Panorama of the San Marcos Foothills Preserve
Why not Bicycles and Horses?

Some cycling and equestrian enthusiasts have wondered why bicycles and horses are not allowed on the San Marcos Foothills Preserve. It is never easy when one type of recreation is disallowed in a public space while others are allowed. This article makes the case for limiting certain types of recreation to support wildlife protection on the San Marcos Foothills and to honor the intent of the land donation: preservation. This article represents the views of Channel Islands Restoration. It is not meant to represent the views of the County of Santa Barbara.

Saved for Preservation

In 2007, two hundred acres of the San Marcos Foothills were donated to the Trust for Public Land (TPL). Jeff Bermant who managed the property at the time said, "We are so pleased that we could fulfill our dream of donating this land for conservation.” The TPL subsequently donated the property to Santa Barbara County to "ensure that the property will be preserved as open space for its biological, scenic and archaeological resources." All this came about after years of advocacy by conservationists, particularly the San Marcos Foothills Coalition. The San Marcos Foothills Preserve was saved from development and is open to the public because conservationists worked hard for many years to make that happen. They did so supporting the idea of conserving the property as a primary goal, but also allowing for low-impact recreation that will not interfere with efforts to conserve and restore the property.

What kind of recreation?

The San Marcos Foothills Preserve Long-Term Open Space Management Plan requires that the property be managed to ensure that visitor use does not exceed the carrying capacity of the Preserve. It also requires that recreational activities shall not jeopardize the safety of others and shall not cause damage or harm to environmentally sensitive habitat or species. We believe that the Preserve is already at its “carrying capacity” with regard to impacts that threaten these values. Despite heroic efforts by County staff and volunteers, invasive plants are spreading along trails, erosion gullies are common and many visitors are hiking off-trail and/or ignoring leash ordinances. The number of nesting birds on the Preserve has declined over the years. Funding to restore habitat is hard to come by, and less than two percent of the Preserve has undergone restoration so far. Funding is also tight for personnel to enforce ordinances. In the Long-Term Open Space Management Plan for the Preserve, the County cites a study indicating that over a two-day period, five percent of users on three local trails were riding bicycles or horses. This amounts to about 75 people. The County cites this as an indication that there is not a lot of demand for this type of recreation on the Preserve. This may not be a large number of people. But because it is hard enough to manage the number of people currently using the Preserve, adding even a portion of those cyclists or equestrians will make a difficult situation even more complicated.

Do bicycles cause extra problems along trails? Do weeds spread in horse dung? Studies differ and people offer various opinions on these issues. The County cites concerns about erosion and weed spread in its management plan. It also points out that trail safety is a major issue “with skittish horses, fast-moving bicycles, and hikers all sharing the same narrow passageways.” We share this concern as well. Also, from our long experience removing invasive plants along trails, we know that people spread weeds whether they are biking, hiking, dog walking or riding horses. We believe that any increased use along trails at the Preserve will not be manageable and will make the job of restoring the Preserve more difficult.

Representatives of cycling and equestrian groups point out that they are responsible trail users in the community. After all, they are the ones who often maintain many of the trails they ride on. Of course if only the most responsible individuals visited the Preserve then problems associated with their use might be minimized. The fact of the matter is, once you open up the Preserve to new forms of recreation, everyone can participate, not just the responsible people. Even if you open the door to a couple of new types of recreation, there will always be another group that feels left out. Why not allow motorcycles? How about model airplanes? Flying model airplanes was common along Via Gaitero Road until the County disallowed it because of concerns that it was impacting nesting birds. The author of this article enjoys flying model airplanes, but he accepts that it is not an appropriate activity in a nature preserve. Everyone can enjoy the San Marcos Foothills Preserve. But some of us need to give up enjoying certain types of recreation there if we want to protect the open space we love.

Alternative Cycling and Horseback Riding Trails

There are at least eleven major trails in the Santa Barbara area that permit cycling and equestrian use (see the list below). These trails cater to people of many skill levels, but those marked “easy” are great introductory trails:

  • Arroyo Burro Trail
  • Cold Spring Trail
  • Elings Park (easy)
  • Ellwood Mesa (easy)
  • Jesusita Trail
  • Lake Los Carneros (easy)
  • Rattlesnake Trail
  • Romero Trail
  • San Ysidro Trail
  • Tunnel Trail
  • Tunnel Connector Trail