Should San Luis Obispo open one of its landmark peaks to nighttime hiking and biking?
That’s the question being considered by the City Council, which is mulling whether to approve a pilot program for limited recreational after-dark use of Cerro San Luis. The proposal is still on the table after a divided council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to move forward with continued discussions.
Those in favor of night hiking and biking want to enjoy nature after getting off work around 5 p.m. in the winter, when daylight savings time is over.
Those against say it would disturb a host of animals active during the night, including owls, coyotes, raccoons, deer, and mountain lions. Unsafe human activity also could increase the need for emergency response, they say.
Proposed extended winter hours of recreational use at Cerro San Luis would be between an hour before sunrise to 8:30 p.m.
Open-space recreation is currently prohibited at night in the city with use allowed between one hour before sunrise through one hour after sunset.
Sunset was 6:23 p.m. on Wednesday, meaning hikers would have to be off the trails at 7:23 p.m. or face a ticket, which carries a $561 fine (consisting mostly of court processing costs), said Robert Hill, the city’s natural resources manager. In the winter, when it gets dark around 5 p.m., people have to be off the trail by 6 p.m., depending on the exact sunset time.
Other city natural reserves — like Bishop Peak, Johnson Ranch and Irish Hills — aren’t under consideration for night hiking and biking.
The pilot program would run on specific dates between November and March during this winter and next. Summertime hiking would fall under existing use rules.
The council heard arguments from more than 20 speakers in public comment, most of them opposed, including former council members Jan Marx and John Ashbaugh.
“Putting human recreation as a higher priority than preservation of nature is a change in policy. It’s not a pilot program,” Marx said. “What that means is it will start opening up all kinds of anti-environmental activity in the future. ... This is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.”
But supporters argued an evening need for outdoor experiences and exercise.
“There’s a lot of people who between work and caring for family have a very limited time to enjoy open space,” said Connor Culhane, president of Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers. “A modest increase (in hours of use) would go a long ways toward allowing them access to the outdoors, and to continue their outdoor recreation and exercise.”
The council delayed its decision to allow city staff members to review and evaluate public comments relating to environmental impacts. A full environmental impact report could be necessary if impacts are anticipated to be significant. But the city’s initial study didn’t expect that to be the case.
During the pilot program, city staff and environmental consultants would conduct weekly monitoring and evaluation of both human and wildlife use.
About 18 acres of space would be affected by the pilot program at the 118-acre reserve, which includes 4.9 miles of trails. The city’s entire open space area includes about 3,850 acres.
Council members Carlyn Christianson and Andy Pease opposed the program.
Putting human recreation as a higher priority than preservation of nature is a change in policy, it’s not a pilot program. ...This is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.
Jan Marx, former San Luis Obispo mayor
“I am concerned this is a slippery slope,” Christianson said. “I think it breaks the trust the council has with the community to protect our open space and wildlands.”
But Vice Mayor Dan Rivoire said opponents of the program are making a “mountain out of a molehill.”
“You can look at all sorts of incredible preserved land throughout the world, including state and national parks,” Rivoire said. “I was just looking up the hours of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and (they’re open to public use) 24 hours a day, 365 (days per year). I think conservation ethics intertwine with use.”
Overnight permits are required for wilderness trips in Sequoia and Kings Canyon.
Curfew at all county parks and facilities, excluding campgrounds, is between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The same hours apply to Montaña de Oro, a state park.