Several vehicles were already parked along the side of the road near where Highland Drive dead-ends at the Bishop Peak trailhead when Doug Carscaden, San Luis Obispo Ranger Services supervisor, maneuvered a city truck up the street on a recent October evening.
It was about a half hour after sunset, and any trail users had 30 minutes to finish their hike on the Bishop Peak Trail or Felsman Loop and leave the open space before it officially closed for the evening.
“If we want to be hard about it, we could start citing at 7:20 p.m.,” Carscaden said as he greeted people coming and going from one of the trailheads.
Night-hiking has been prohibited in San Luis Obispo since 1998, but the city has never had enough ranger staffing available to consistently enforce that and other rules, such as keeping dogs on a leash — and trail users knew it. Thirty-nine residents near Bishop Peak penned a letter to the city last spring stating that dogs routinely ran off-leash, hikers routinely went off-trail and groups of people entered the reserve every night.
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“I love the space and I want it to stay open,” nearby resident Kathy apRoberts said. “I want people to appreciate it and love it for it’s beauty but just be respectful of the rules.”
$561: The fine for off-leash dogs, night-hiking and drinking in open space
25: Citations issued as of Nov. 3. Six were parking violations, one was for drinking, eight for off-leash dogs, 10 for hiking after hours.
Over the past few years, residents made it known in surveys and with support of the city’s half-percent sales tax measure that they would pay for the city to spend more money on buying and maintaining open space.
The San Luis Obispo City Council responded by naming open space as a major city goal in the 2015-17 financial plan, and approved funds to hire a new ranger maintenance worker and two other temporary employees, bringing the total ranger staff to 7.5 positions from 4.5 jobs. The change — which will cost $148,686 this fiscal year and $152,298 next year — drastically improves the city’s ability to maintain, improve and patrol its approximately 3,500 acres of open space areas.
Focus on maintenance
Besides seeing more rangers, hikers will also see some improvements: new signs, informational kiosks, trash cans, mutt mitts, and possibly better parking for cars and bikes. A “nuts and bolts” maintenance plan for all of the open space areas was released to the public this week and will go to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission on Dec. 2, then to the City Council on Dec. 15.
For years, the city focused on acquiring open space properties and building trails — 52 miles of trails as of this year, to be exact. But now the focus has shifted to balance the land acquisition with maintenance and day-to-day operating needs.
San Luis Obispo has about 3,500 acres of open space with 52 miles of trails. Most-popular areas are Johnson Ranch, Bishop Peak and Cerro San Luis.
There’s an overall “street-and-curb appeal” of the city’s open space properties that needs to be addressed, Natural Resources Manager Bob Hill said, since open space entrances often feature faded signs, old gates, trash and dog poop.
“If we show more pride of ownership, then people will be more likely to take care of a place,” Hill said.
Three open space areas — Johnson Ranch, Bishop Peak and Cerro San Luis — have the most visitors, each averaging 400 to 600 users a day, according to an open space survey completed this year. Rangers are trying to spread their focus to all 12 major properties held in open space, however.
“Now that we’re up to full staff with four trucks running we can jump on things really quick,” Carscaden said. “If someone called and said they had a bad exchange with someone and their dogs, we could probably get there and talk to that person coming out (of the open space).”
The increased staff — including one ranger hired specifically to focus on enforcement — has also allowed the rangers to start issuing more tickets. From around Sept. 19 to Nov. 3, 25 citations had been issued: six for parking violations, one for drinking, eight for off-leash dogs and 10 for hiking after hours. Those latter three citations pack a hefty fine: $561.
“After enough warnings, it gets to a point where we need a bite, not just a bark anymore, just to get the point across,” ranger Chris Hoffman said.
At the trailhead to Bishop Peak off Patricia Drive, Carscaden slipped a green leash over a signpost for anyone to take as needed.
Next to it, someone had ripped off part of a small flier stapled to the post listing reasons dogs should be leashed: it protects them from mountain lions, poison oak, or sick animals; dogs can stress small native animals like squirrels and birds; or they may intimidate other hikers.
There also have been reports of dogs attacking wildlife and other dogs.
“We’ve had a few complaints from people about dogs having to be on-leash, and we say they’ve always had to be, we just didn’t enforce it,” Carscaden said. “Frankly some people were scared to be in open space. Everyone should feel as safe as everyone else.”
Hoffman said he’s seen hikers take their dog off-leash once they get into the open space, or sees a dog long before he spots its owner.
The worst thing is when I’m hiking with friends and a dog runs off-leash into poison oak and then runs between people’s legs, spreading it.
Gary Felsman, for whom the Felsman Loop is named
But all of the dog owners spotted on Bishop Peak on a recent Thursday evening had their pets on a leash. San Luis Obispo resident Luis Duazo, who was hiking with his two dogs, a terrier and a Basenji, said the large fine makes it not worth the risk to take his dogs off-leash, though he wished there were some designated off-leash trails.
“It’s sometimes a bummer,” Duazo said of the leash law, “because these dogs are mellow. I get it but I think they’d have more fun if they could roam a little more.”
ApRoberts, who lives near a Bishop Peak trailhead, said she’s seen much more compliance with the off-leash rule. But she can still spot numerous lights from night hikers every weekend on the mountain.
And Highland Drive resident Felicia Cashin is worried about the safety of hikers walking up the middle of the narrow street to access the trail. “I’ve been asking the city to get homeowners to cut their brush back so people could step out of the way,” Cashin said. “I’m terrified that one day I’m going to be distracted and I’m going to hit someone.”
Preserving natural resources
It’s clear the open space areas are beloved by the community, and that’s a good thing. But some might not know that the city’s top priority is natural resource protection “first and foremost,” Hill said, and then passive recreation when appropriate, such as hiking, trail running, bird watching and mountain biking.
One of the ways to protect natural resources, he said, is to manage and educate people through informative signs and kiosks, clearly marked trails, reminders of open-space regulations and more rangers for face-to-face interactions.
“Up until now most people report they never see rangers in open space when they’re hiking or biking or doing anything else,” said Bob Nanninga, longtime trail crew volunteer and director with Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers. “There are advantages to having more rangers in open space: they know the problems better and help educate people to appreciate their own open space and to take better care of it.”
Nanninga was one of a half dozen volunteers who gathered on a recent Wednesday morning in a parking area near the trailhead to Reservoir Canyon, a lesser-used open space area. Future plans for this open space area include a larger parking area, better signs and possibly an accessible path to a waterfall that normally runs year-round about 50 yards from the trailhead.
If we show more pride of ownership then people will be more likely to take care of a place.
Bob Hill, San Luis Obispo natural resources manager
But on this particular “Wednesday workday” the volunteer crew would start cutting a new trail, a loop that would add about a mile of trail off the existing path. Over the course of the year, the city gets about 2,000 hours of work on Wednesdays from its volunteers, Carscaden said.
When planning trails, rangers carefully choose routes that limit the impact on native plants and wildlife, and entice hikers down the path. In Reservoir Canyon area, for example, about 92 percent remains as wildlife habitat, Carscaden said, while only 8 percent is covered in trails for public access.
“Our goal is we want someone to get on this trail and think it’s been there 10 years,” Carscaden said. “Even though it’s brand new.”
As Carscaden talked and hiked to the future trail, the sound of a chainsaw split the air. Nanninga and Gary Felsman worked side by side, cutting and removing brush from the future trail site with hand saws and shears.
Felsman, for whom the Felsman Loop is named, said he’s recently seen much more compliance with city rules in open-space areas, particularly the off-leash dog regulation, and added that new signs posting the amount of the fine has helped.
Nanninga said he found an illegal trail while doing some solo trail work in Irish Hills, which the Wednesday crew soon closed.
“It just helps to have more people up on the trails,” he said.
San Luis Obispo’s open space maintenance plan goes to the Parks and Recreation Commission on Dec. 2 and the City Council on Dec. 15. Learn more about the plan at http://slocity.org/government/department-directory/
Two “awareness walks” will be held Nov. 7 and Nov. 12, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Meet at the Prefumo Canyon trailhead in Irish Hills. The city will have an information booth at Downtown SLO Farmer’s Market on Nov. 12.
Ranger Services has also launched a challenge called #PixonPeaks offering free T-shirts to individuals or groups who hike seven peaks and post photos on Instagram as proof. To learn more, visit www.slocity.org/