Unlocking Pismo Beach’s wildland

Pismo Lake Ecological Reserve features willow thickets and a lake with four large islands.
Pismo Lake Ecological Reserve features willow thickets and a lake with four large islands. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Hidden behind the shopping malls and housing tracts of Pismo Beach is a diamond in the rough: the Pismo Lake Ecological Reserve. It is nearly 70 acres of willow thickets and oak woodlands.

For the first time, State Parks is considering giving the public access to the area. The agency is mulling options ranging from scenic overlooks to a hiking trail.

State Parks, along with the Coastal San Luis Resource Conservation District, recently completed an inventory of the property and outlined several possible access plans.

“We’ve been interested in this site for a long time,” said Neil Havlik, chairman of the conservation district board. “My view is that the place lends itself to some kind of low-key passive recreation, like hiking and wildlife viewing.”

More than half of the property consists of willow thickets and a lake that features four large islands. The rest is mostly oak woodland and nonnative grasses.

The lake is shallow because of historic sedimentation in the Meadow Creek watershed that feeds it. It is full of reeds and has a few nonnative freshwater fish, such as bass and crappie.

The most ambitious access option is a three-quarter-mile loop trail with a spur trail and bridge to one of the islands. Interpretive displays explaining the ecology of the reserve would be included.

Currently, the reserve is closed to the public, but that has not stopped trespassing, particularly by vagrants. When the resource inventory began a year ago, Havlik was surprised to find a dozen people living in squalor in homeless encampments.

“The property suffers from benign neglect,” he said.

Park rangers have removed the homeless, but the concern about illegal use remains, said Andy Zilke, park superintendent. One benefit of greater public access is that more eyes would be on the park and illegal use would be reported.

A public meeting was held recently at Pismo Beach City Hall to discuss the future of Pismo Lake. About 30 people attended, many of them neighbors of the park.

Some supported the idea of public access, but others opposed it. One of the main fears is that granting public access would encourage trespassing on private property in the neighborhood and cause other public safety issues.

Other hiking trails, such as the Bob Jones City to the Sea Trail, initially received opposition from neighbors but are now popular, said Nicole Smith, watershed coordinator with the conservation district.

“It will be a process to get the public on board with this,” Smith said. “I’m excited that it’s actually moving forward.”

Pismo Beach officials are also glad to see plans for the lake proceeding. The city owns a 1-acre lot off Fourth Street that could be used as a trailhead.

“The city has been interested in seeing something happen,” said Carolyn Johnson, Pismo Beach’s planning manager. “It would be a nice fit if something could get off the ground.”

State Parks managers will now write up an interim management plan for the park, which will eventually go to the state Parks and Recreation Commission for approval, said Ronnie Glick, park resource ecologist.

“So it’s at least two years before anything would happen,” he said. “I’m encouraged that we are doing the right thing by giving access to public land in a responsible way.”

To read a copy of the resource inventory and access plan, go to www.coastalrcd.org and click on “What’s New.”