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State wildlife officials fight illegal use at Carlsbad Highlands preserve

CARLSBAD — After years of vandalism and illegal trail riding at Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve, state wildlife officials announced that law enforcement will enhance its efforts to preserve the trail, increase patrols and issue tickets to individuals in violation of the law.

Ed Pert, South Coast regional manager with California Department Fish and Wildlife, told a small crowd during an April 6 media event that mountain biking on the preserve’s trails is creating huge problems for the local environment and habitat.

“It’s illegal to ride a mountain bike in an ecological reserve anywhere in California,” Pert said. “These areas are set aside for animals that can’t protect themselves. (Illegal riders) take it upon themselves to trash that habitat. Some of those animals are on the brink and they are doing this for their own amusement.”

Video footage from trail cameras shows bike riders damaging and removing signs at Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Preserve. Courtesy video/CA Dept. Fish and Wildlife

Pert said bikers dig up and transport soil to build jumps and berms and remove trees and vegetation to carve out an estimated 17 miles of illegal riding trails.

In the most recent act of defiance, a new sign displaying the rules for Highlands preserve  — restricting mountain bikes — was cut down.

Trail cameras have also caught riders damaging and removing signs protecting restricted areas.

Since the mid-2000s, Pert said the state has lost over 500 signs to brazen acts of vandalism at the Highlands reserve.

“These guys are not only causing problems for habitat, I would argue that they are eroding our civil society and democracy,” Pert said. “These acts have a negative effect on our community.”

The 473-acre nature preserve, acquired by the state wildlife agency in 2000, is a protected habitat for native coastal sage scrub and grasslands.

The land is also home to a number of species such as California gnatcatchers, golden eagles, coyotes, grasshopper sparrows and black-shouldered kites.

But most importantly, Pert said, it’s a safety issue.

“It’s dangerous out there and hikers are upset about it,” Pert said. “There is a sense of entitlement by mountain bikers who feel that they should have a right to ride here because its public land. We are not looking to be punitive. We just want it to stop.”

And Pert isn’t the only one upset about illegal use of trails by mountain bikers at Highlands.

A new sign was installed at Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve after vandals cut down the previous marker. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

Carlsbad residents Paul and Cindy, who said they have enjoyed walking the Highlands every weekend for the last seven years, said they feel like second-class citizens to bikers using the trails.

“When we hear bikes coming without any warning, we have to step off trail into the bushes,” Cindy said. “Why do we have to give up our serenity and our safety for a bike to come past? If I stood in the middle of trail and didn’t move, what would happen?”

Paul added that there is an “arrogance and ignorance” by some of the riders who don’t communicate properly with others sharing the trail.

“We have the right of way and they don’t understand that,” Paul said. “If a majority of the riders would follow trail etiquette, say ‘thank you’ when we do find a way to step off, I’d have no complaint.”

Members of the mountain biking community are speaking out against the agency’s policy, accusing state wildlife officials of demonizing riders and unfairly conflating the destruction of public property with off-road cyclists.

Ben Stone, trails coordinator for San Diego Mountain Biking Association, said the current situation was created by poor management, excessive enforcement and a lack of interaction with local riders.

“If the idea is that mountain bikers hate the environment and love the degradation of the land, then why are they out there?” Stone said. “Most of our membership has an appreciation for the environment and would love to see this area protected in a balanced way.”

Currently, there are two trails designated for hiking that run through Highlands preserve.

Emery, 2, practices riding her bike at New Venture Christian Fellowship church near an entrance into Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve. Local mountain bikers say they want to work with the state officials to allow riders access to the preserve. 
Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

Stone said people who live in nearby neighborhoods have been using that area for years and simply want a place to recreate.

Making matters worse, Stone said, is the way the agency has alienated locals by refusing to hold constructive discussions with the community.

“It’s a complicated subject,” Stone said. “But how do you create stewardship without engaging these communities? Instead, they double down on enforcement, fence half the property, put barriers up with no engagement. It’s a terrible messaging approach.”

Longtime San Diego County resident Gary Murphy, who attended Saturday’s press conference to support local cyclists, said he grew up riding around this area and expressed his frustration that his children may not have that same opportunity.

“The fact that my kids can’t ride in places right next to our house, I think that’s ludicrous,” Murphy said. “I think we can work together to create a trail maintenance plan so that everybody benefits.”

San Marcos resident Jerry Hill, an avid mountain biker, said he feels there needs to be a compromise and a better management plan to accommodate responsible cyclists.

“I’m not an advocate for vandalism by any means, but I do believe in managing the land properly,” Hill said. “I think there needs to be a compromise. We all live here and we all use the area.”

TOP, ABOVE: Pictures taken by state wildlife officials depicting illegal trails carved into the preserve by mountain bikers at the Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve. Courtesy photos/CA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

Highlands is part of a larger 6,478-acre preserve system and one of five ecological reserves — Buena Vista Lagoon, Buena Vista Creek, Agua Hedionda Lagoon and Batiquitos Lagoon — owned and managed by the state located within Carlsbad city limits.

These protected spaces are created to strike a balance between preservation and urban development. Guidelines for recreational use on state-owned land are legislated in Sacramento.

Rosanne Humphrey, Habitat Management program coordinator for the city of Carlsbad, said that people often don’t understand that state ecological reserves are the most conservative land-use areas.

“The main thing is that both city and state set aside these lands for this specific purpose and it’s a legal requirement,” Humphrey said. “I get that it’s frustrating for mountain bikers that have used these lands for decades but it’s not for the purpose of recreation.”

Every state ecological reserve requires a minimum level of enforcement, but game wardens responsible for patrolling state lands are stretched too thin, Humphrey said.

The lack of resources prompted the city of Carlsbad to collaborate with SANDAG in July 2018 to create a pilot program funding “localized enforcement of open space lands” identified in the city’s habitat plan.

The yearlong agreement authorized the Carlsbad Police Department to create two new “ranger” positions to patrol preserved areas, issue tickets and make arrests if necessary.

“They are actually open-space rangers,” Humphrey said. “They have different uniforms and vehicles but the last I heard they weren’t issuing citations on state-owned land. They generally inform people that their not supposed to be there.”

The fine for illegal bike riding is $250, bikes may also be confiscated and repeat offenders could be fined up to the value of their bike.

Nearly every ecological reserve in California prohibits mountain bikes.

More video of vandalism at Carlsbad Highlands:

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