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Not so very long ago, the Pony Express linked the many emerging communities burgeoning in California, providing communications as well as travel routes.  Today, the Pony Express would probably not be allowed on either public or private lands.  In spite of legislation passed establishing the California Riding and Hiking Trails (CHRT) project in 1944, proponents of recreational trails riding are still fighting an uphill battle.

The struggle for trail rights turned personal for Kathleen Hayden in 1994 when, near her home in Warner Springs, an original piece of Spanish Land Grant was fenced along Highway S2 – right over the California Hiking and Riding Trail posts.  “It was a real shock to see not only the fencing, but ‘no trespassing’ signs posted right over the official signage,” recalls Kathleen.  Her letter to the State Parks Department requesting information elicited only a vague comment that the trail was “maintained within park boundaries.”

It took Kathleen a year to acquire the necessary information, durign which time, she also located and joined two organizations that were supporting the trail in San Diego County – Backcountry Horsemen and the San Diego Trails Council.  SDTC had obtained a $75,000 grant from the State Parks Dept. to restore more than 100 miles of deeded access in San Diego Country alone.  Several closures had resulted in litigation including a lawsuit against State Parks for quit claiming the public’s interest in the CRHT at a landowner’s request.  In spite of the fact that legislation is in place to maintain and preserve the California Riding and Hiking Trail, stumbling blocks such as this continue to be lobbed like baseballs at recreationers, as the State Parks Department bypasses the standards in the Recreational Trail Plan in an effort to turn state parkland into nature preserves.

When the original legislation formulating the CHRT was drafted more than half a century ago, its purpose was to initiate the development of a statewide trails system.  The Resources Code authorized the State Park Commission and the Department of Natural Resources to make investigations, reports, recommendations and plans for the location and development of a State Trails System, including appropriations.  Responsibility for the project was placed with the California State Park Commission, which later appointed a Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Committee.

The recommendation to the legislature was for a 3000-mile trail, extending from San Ysidro in San Diego County, north through the Tehachapi Mountains and Sierra Nevada to the Oregon line, and returning southward through the Costal Range.  The Division of Beaches and Parks then initiated a statewide survey of existing trails and proposed trail sites.  During initial meetings, the Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Committee recommended that the trail route should be determined by local interest.  The original 1945 Act provided funds to begin the project.  By 1955, 29 of the 38 counties on the proposed route submitted plans approved by the State Park Commission.   In addition, the trail was to be constructed by state park personnel and built through contracts with private firms and the U.S. Forest Service.  A system of overnight camps were begun, with the units planned to be spaced 15-20 miles apart, with facilities consisting of stoves, tables, water, sanitation and corrals.

In 1955, the CRHT Act was amended to permit the establishment and construction of secondary trails to provide better use and access from communities to the Trail.  Statewide, 1060 miles of the CRHT had been completed by the early 1960’s.  The project was running out of money and the state’s emphasis shifted toward the creation of trails near urban centers.  By 1966, the prevailing feeling about the trail was that a state loop trail was not in the entire state’s best interest and a determination was made to develop a series of local loop trails to serve more people.  Though never finished, the now historic CRHT still serves as one of California’s earliest and most successful models of trailbuilding on a county, regional and statewide scale.

In 1974 the CRHT Act was repealed, amended and renamed to read “California Recreational Trails Act.”  Similar to the previous legislation, it consists of statutes calling for  increased accessibility and enhancing the use, enjoyment, and understanding of California’s scenic, natural, historic and cultural resources, as well as to encourage hiking, horseback riding and bicycling.  The amended act also provides for the use of recreational trails by physically disabled persons, the elderly and others in need of graduated trails with special safety features.  It also provides for heritage corridors, interpretive signage of significant routes and the maintenance of the system statewide.

Again, the legislature designated the Director of State Parks to prepare and maintain a comprehensive plan for the development and operation of a statewide system of trails.  The plan set forth the role of state government in providing for increased opportunities, access, acquiring, developing and maintaining trails and areas as part of the system.  This included specific standards and criteria for trailheads and corals.  “The published study in the 1970s that accompanied the State Recreation plan was well done in many aspects of predicting the continued need for providing multiple use trails to a growing population,” observes Kathleen.  “It advocated several things, including zoning, as an effective tool to accomplish this, facilitating legislation to connect public lands.”  However, attendees at State Conferences Workshops were assigned the task of making recommendations for the update of the 1978 plan without having access to the original study.  “In essence, we were reinventing the wheel,” she continued.  “Even after a focus committee was organized, the task was unwieldy.  In my view, this was because the original study was not utilized for an update.  I perceived the original mandate was to update, not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I believe, too, it was the intention of the original legislation to have updates and recommendations reviewed every two years by the legislature to ensure continuity of a Statewide Trail Plan.   State Parks disagrees.

“The original California Riding and Hiking Trail was an evolving plan, a promise to future generations,” Kathleen stresses.  Closures such as the Mormon Battalion Trail or any of our historic routes are unacceptable.  It was not the intent of the Historic Preservation Act.  Our historic routes are also protected by Congress under  RS2477.  State Parks has closed three of my favorite trails in the last two years without due process.  In addition to the Mormon Battalion Trail, they are the Wilson Trail, and Charlie Technor Trail, all CRHT connectors.  I believe the entire CRHT Plan qualifies for protection under the United States Code Revised Statute RS2477.”

The 1970’s revision of the CHRT plan required description of new and revised policies, programs and other actions.  The Director of State Parks was authorized to enter into agreements with agencies and private landowners in order to develop and manage land as part of the trail system.  Each fiscal year, he is charged with preparing a list of recommended priority system projects for legislative review for funding consideration in the Budget Bill, including verification that proposed acquisitions are an essential part of the system.

Statute 5074 provided for the Governor to appoint a citizen’s advisory committee comprised of two representatives from the south, central and northern sections of the state.  Duties and powers of the Advisory Committee include the coordination of trail planning and development among cities, counties and districts.  They are also empowered to review records of lands and easements for possible trail linkages, study problems and opportunities presented by the use of private property for trails use and advise the director on measure to mitigate undesirable aspects of such usage.

Instead, property owners are simply uninformed and have been frightened by property rights activists that their property values will be diminished and they will be invaded by hoards of vandalizers or that they will be subject to litigation.  In reality, very few lawsuits have been filed.  In addition, the state has a legal fund trust to reimburse a property owner for litigation.  Even if that weren’t the case, most people carry liability insurance as a condition of their mortgage. Many counties in California have adopted indemnification to cover these issues, including Santa Clara, Tuolumne and San Diego.  Statute 5074.4 actually mandates that no adjoining property owner is liable for any action of any type resulting from, or caused by trails users trespassing on adjoining property and no adjoining owner is liable for any action of any type started on, or taking place within, the boundaries of the trail arising out of the activities of other parties.

After obtaining the grant and permit from State Parks to restore the 100-plus miles of CRHT in San Diego County, the Trails Council ran across several property owners who had fenced and locked the trail.  It took a court injunction to open it.  The court costs came out of the Grant because State Parks refused to defend its title to the deeds, reports Kathleen.  In addition, the Park refuses to allow the public to maintain any part of the trail without specific written permission and is currently claiming it may require an Environmental Impact prior to issuing permission.

“Our County Trails Administrator told us that the public has the right to maintain public trails,” she continues.  “Now, the Park has gone so far as to notify a lone trail buff and the sheriff of its position on this matter.  Several of us have made the long trip to Sacramento to research County Park Archives.  The documents there tell a different story.  Twenty-nine out of the 37 counties submitted trail plans to State Parks in the late 40’s and early 50’s as a result of the CRHT legislation.  Some of it happened and most of it didn’t, for many different reasons.

“The point of it today is that our Historic Preservation Laws, the National Trail Act, and RS2477 are the vehicles by which it can continue. If our legislation were to renew the original commitment, counties and volunteers could better manage their own systems utilizing State Parks assistance to connect to other counties and public land systems.  It’s a challenge but it can be done.

There is no plausible explanation for the reluctance on the part of the State Parks Department as far as anyone can tell, certainly from a legislative standpoint.  Standards and Criteria in the CHRT act specify that routes shall be included which are in proximity or accessible to major urban areas of the state; located on lands in public ownership that provide linkage or access to scenic, historic or recreational areas or significance which may be the subject of agreements providing the participation of other agencies and volunteer associations in state trail acquisitions, development or maintenance (MOU’s), and insofar as possible, trials should be designed to harmonize with and complement established forest agricultural and resource management plans

An August news article in the San Diego Union Tribune reported that thousands more acres designated for recreational purposes are in danger of being closed due to environmental concerns.  Instead of environmentalists working hand in hand with trail users, it appears that the opposite is occurring, especially in California.  Observes Kathleen, “The Supreme Court decision to protect habitat of endangered species should have been good news for trails.  Non-motorized trail use is classified as passive recreation and trail users are passionate supporters of resource conservation and gentle use.  To date, there is a lack of scientific data to support that responsible recreation has any significant negative impact on the environment or species.  Despite the foregoing, access to trails and public lands are closed at an alarming rate.”  The off-road recreational users organization believes that, after years of compromising and the ongoing loss of recreational trails, it has become clear that opponents will not cease their efforts until off-road recreation, which includes equestrian use, has been totally eliminated.

The Hillary Clinton Millennium Trail Program provided for the nomination for 2000 Community Trails, and A Legacy Trail for each state.  The focus of this program is to honor the past and imagine the future.  The passage of the Land and Water Conservation Fund includes a $1 million allocation for historic preservation.  This is another opportunity to research historic easements and roads no longer maintained in the highway system as well as the original portions of the CHRT and other historic trails.  In addition, says Kathleen, the park bonds that have indebted the future should also provide an abundance of trails.

In spite of this, it appears to be litigation looming on the horizon for proponents of the Friends of the California Hiking and Riding Trail instead of riding.  Discouraging?  Yes, says Kathleen.  But the tools are in place to keep trails part of our national heritage.  She believes that by being informed and participating, the goal can still be achieved.