OC Parks Trails Pilot Project

Postmortem on OC Parks Trails Subcommittee meeting of Dec. 12, 2022

At its previous meeting on Sept. 29, the Subcom had discussed Utah State University’s final report on the Pilot Project, and it was agreed that Staff would continue its analysis of the report and present its recommendations [understood at the time to be about next steps to take] at its next meeting. I spoke briefly with Pam Passow[i] at the end of that meeting, at which time she noted darkly that USU’s report was very long and complicated. Indeed, it was: running to 143 pages including appendices and full of graphs to illustrate all the information that USU had collected. About what one might expect an academic study such as this to look like.

That may have been the first warning of troubles ahead. The second came with the release of an agenda for Dec. 12 [a date that had—coincidentally?—just been postponed from the 8 th ] that substantially lowered the bar. The plan was now for Subcom members to “discuss and provide feedback on [USU’s report]” and to determine whether the trail use designations used in its study “can serve as a viable tool…to consider in trail management decisions.” Put crudely, was the study worth a bean—or not—in future trail management decisions?

With this background in mind, the meeting unfolded. It began with a statement that Parks’ policy has always been to have multi-use trails (barring legal or specific conditions that make them unfeasible). The question now was whether there should be policy changes regarding trail use. A staff member briefly outlined the chronology of the Pilot Project and then turned the discussion over to the Subcom members, with a request for their thoughts. This took them by surprise; it appeared that they had not expected things to be dumped in their laps so abruptly.  Recovering, Chair John Koos[ii] urged the 2 new members, Deborah Ball and Suzanne Martin[iii] toweigh in. Both extolled the importance of educating park users, with others quickly piling on toconcur. Ball did point out the obvious: that of course they should consider trail use changes, along with other things (the evening’s first “duh” moment), but it got lost in the educational scrimmage that soon devolved into Steve Larson 5 proclaiming the importance of each park user carrying an ID, in case….[what? That they might need to be picked up after being knocked over by an e-bike?]

Ron Vanderhoff[iv] was able to restore a bit of sanity to the proceedings with a sensible call for enforcement of regulations along with education. He had looked up the record on citations for noncompliance with trail rules (e.g., speeding) in 2019 (not sure of exact year) and found only 7 for that year. This seemed extremely low to him, considering the number of trail users. He asked that the Subcom obtain such records for 2021 and make them publicly available to see what they tell us. There seemed to be some agreement, though no vote was taken. Vanderhoff’s term on the Subcom is ending, and I doubt that anything will come of his request.

Steve Larson[v] (whose term is also ending) said that most bikers are responsible [true]. He suggested that trail users correct each others’ behavior. [Have you ever told a downhill biker to slow down? Good luck.] He also referred to USU as the “University of Utah”. Not a big deal; people easily get muddled, but maybe signaling a lack of attentiveness.

David Shawver[vi] (soon to be chair) said that we shouldn’t “just start changing things.” The report showed a low level of conflict on our trails. We should use the study “as a template” [for further study]. A “great cross-section [of trail users] participated” in it.


During these initial stages of the Subcom’s discussion, Martin expressed appreciation of the term “public buy-in” that I’d used during time allotted to public comment, along with “public outreach” and “public input” in an argument for engaging the trail-using public in future discussions of trail use and policy changes. Martin used it to mean obtaining public compliance with park regulations through education, a different animal. So, I put my hand up and kept it up to see what would happen. [The public is not allowed to participate in these meetings outside of the comment period.]

When it got to Koos again, he duly informed me that I could not participate. [= I’d have to wait to be educated?] “Government, unfortunately, moves slowly.” However [more brightly], “the report shows we’re making progress.” He suggested that they might examine the citation fee and raise it. Having the threat of a higher penalty might be helpful. Then on the reality of enforcement: “If we need more rangers [to enforce], we need more revenues.” You who care [about such things] should take it to the County Supervisors. Then there was a throwaway line about him wanting fewer people to attend the Subcom meetings. But then, “I’m just joking.” [We’ve heard this one before.]

Shawver: The report is a start, not an end. It was money well spent. The new Trail Ambassador Program will be BIG, a real help. [= educationally] He said that they have 1000 volunteers lined up [and there will be a cost to outfitting them, even if they are volunteers. Apparently, there is money for SOME things.].

Koos: No major action required.

Someone pointed out that the report was “very narrow” and contained no ecological implications regarding trail use.

Staff member: In the process of setting up the Pilot Project, we went to the Coastal Greenbelt Authority [= sufficient public outreach. Me, aside: And does it know anything about specific parks, trails, and user conflict on them?]

Assertion: We really don’t have serious conflict.

Staff: We need to look at feasibility if we consider changing trail use. We have new lands (and trails) being added, which may alleviate the situation. [= lessen trail congestion, eliminate need to tinker with existing trail use? We later learned that this land is part of the Irvine Open Space, which has historically been very restrictive regarding use.]

Shawver: Study could be “very useful” in designing new parks, and yes, it’s a viable tool to consider.

Vanderhoff: Can we recommend holding a stakeholders meeting [to involve the public, as requested by speakers, letters to Subcom]?

Koos: Fine, in the abstract. But…. Cost? [This got vague. It’s my own sense that he sees it as a nuisance.]

Staff: We’ve held [our] meetings here and have received input on the report. There are limits to what we can do. Members of the Subcom do represent all trail user groups [i.e., some of them hike, some bike, others ride horses].

As the meeting wound down, Vanderhof asked to read his prepared words about leaving the Subcom. He finished with a reminder: “Nature [comes] first, then the trails.”

Shawver got in the last word: Periodic review [of what you’re doing] is good. What if [USU] had reported horrible problems? But they didn’t.

By then, the meeting had turned into jokes and laughter among members and staff. Koos wondered if he’d remain on the Subcom—or the Commission?—or whether he’d be appointed to something else. Those remaining in audience just watched, quietly. I had a brief, weird sense of being back in high school, watching the “popular kids” carry on in ways I now understand were designed to emphasize how “truly special” they were. Koos adjourned the meeting.

Ed and I spoke with Ron Vanderhof afterwards, thanked him for all that he had done, or tried todo, along the way.

My personal conclusions about this meeting [which, of course, may themselves be questioned]:

1. Staff was flummoxed by USU’s report. They either didn’t understand it (or much about statistical analysis on a most basic level) or were unwilling to spend the time and effort that understanding would require. So, they had no policy recommendations to make.

2. Ditto for most Subcom members. They referred only to the report’s most positive conclusions (e.g., real conflict is low), with uncritical and simplistic acceptance.

3. They kicked the can down the road.

4. It appears that many/most of them do not want public engagement or involvement, beyond their “educating the public” in how to behave in the Parks. Education is the current panacea.

5. The meeting, as another attendee put it, was lame.

Meanwhile, the committee is looking for new members; it still has 2 empty seats and is looking at applicants. It says it needs more. I am too old to apply, and I have become a burr-under-the- saddle to the remaining members. We need someone younger, who knows the parks and trails, and who is not afraid to speak up, but who has not yet become a plague upon them. (But is willing to become one, as needed.) Please, somebody out there, step forward and identify yourself!


[i] At that time OC Parks Deputy Director, now Interim Director.

[ii] OC Parks Commissioner, outing Chair of the Trails Subcommittee

[iii] Both introduced at September meeting.

[iv] Subcommittee member, term ending

[v] Subcommittee member term ending

[vi] OC Parks Commissioner, becomes Chair of the Trails Subcom in 2023

Report on OC Parks Trails Subcommittee Meeting, September 29, 2022

The meeting began with public comments relating to conflicts between equestrians and bikers.  Equestrians who stable their horses in Santiago Canyon below Whiting Ranch cannot use the trails in Whiting because of the threat posed by the many speeding bikers.  Instead, they have to trailer their horses to O’Neill.  But it appears that they have similar problems in O’Neill.  One equestrian complained of the reckless behavior of bikers on the Santiago Truck Trail (which I believe is under Forest Service, rather than OC Parks, jurisdiction), and the lack of response to her complaints.  Two  bikers also spoke.  One, representing OC Mountain Biking, said that equestrians should have their own trails and referred to a specific trail in O’Neill (Vista Trail?) that seems to be in dispute, where he stated that it should be for equestrians.  He also argued for more trails being built to accommodate the larger numbers of people now using the parks.  A second biker concurred, in particular regarding the specific trail in question.  But then he also detailed just how much fun it was to speed down through the curves on it at 25mph [H:  which is well over the posted 10 mph speed limit!].

An announcement was made that the Trails Subcommittee is looking for new members.

The first presentation was on the Trail Use Pilot Project.  The final report from Utah State University, which was hired to run the project, is now in and may be found on the project website at https://www.ocparks.com/about-us/projects/trails_pilot_project.  It is long and complex, and the Subcomittee staff is still analyzing it.

Three very general conclusions were posited:

  1. Overall user conflict was at low levels.
  2. Users were supportive of the project.
  3. Signage was effective.

The plan is for the staff to come up with recommendations that can be discussed at the next quarterly Subcommittee meeting.  [H:  I imagine it will be in early December but can find no date for it.  If you wish to be notified of upcoming meetings, send an email to the Trails Subcommittee.  Mention was made of some points in the report that were “difficult”, with a specific reference to p. 78, fig. A84, which is a bar graph.  [H:  The nature of the difficulty was not elaborated.]

Discussion and questions followed, somewhat randomly.  [H:  I report what appeared to be key observations or questions in the order in which they occurred.  Added emphasis is mine.]  The information contained in USU’s report is specific to each park and trail involved in the project.  Park rangers helped to choose the trails to be studied.  The number of trails allowed in wilderness parks is limited.  What is the best use for the trails we already have?  “Every trail for everyone, where possible” has always been the guiding philosophy of OC Parks.  Should this now be changed?  Good stewardship of the land is necessary.  There appears to be more perceived conflict in the parks than actual conflict.  [H:  This can be found in USU’s report, p. 10, section 1.4, where they cite a New Zealand study of biker/hiker conflict from 2003.  I have not yet found a definition of what constitutes conflict, perceived or actual, in the context of the Pilot Project, which troubles me.  How can you discuss the problem  of user conflict without one, much less decide what, if anything, to do about it?]  A staff member emphatically said that the OC Parks’ mission statement should state [H: and foreground?] its compliance with environmental restrictions.  It was agreed again that the staff would prepare recommendations for discussion at the Subcommittee’s next meeting.

[H:  I was struck by staff members’ repeated references to the importance of environmental concerns.  I do not recall this emphasis from the previous few meetings I’ve attended, and though memory may be untrustworthy, it seemed a shift.  After the meeting I spoke briefly with Pam Passow, Deputy Director of OC Parks, about the Pilot Project (and my appreciation of the staff’s observations), and later followed up with a summary of my current thoughts on the Project.]

The meeting’s second topic was the OC Parks Volunteer Trail Ambassador Program.  The Irvine Ranch Conservancy is now managing all volunteer training for the parks, with a few exceptions.  Accompanying material indicates, e.g., that “Partner group training [is] required” in Laguna Coast and Aliso Wood.  [H:  This suggests that the Laguna Canyon Foundation is still handling volunteer training for these entities, although the matter was not elaborated or explained during the meeting.]  Training will be tailored to specific parks.  Trail Ambassadors will be stationed at trailheads, some trail intersections and “designated points”.  Their mission will be educational:  to interact with the public in a positive way to encourage responsible trail use, with an emphasis on trail safety and etiquette, as well as wildlife and habitat protection.  On a nuts-and-bolts level, they could be expected to recommend trails to specific users, notify the public of trail closures or things to look for, explain the maps and sort out the “lost”.  No discussion followed.  The Power Point presentation on this program may be found at https://www.ocparks.com/about-us/commissions-and-committees/trails-subcommittee among the materials provided for its Sept. 29 meeting.  For questions concerning the program, contact Kim Casey, Volunteer Coordinator, kim.casey@ocparks.com

[H:  It appears that the Trail Ambassador Program was designed in part to address trail use issues that were the focus of the Pilot Project.  Whether it succeeds at this remains to be seen.  I personally applaud all efforts to improve conditions in our parks; at the very least, we learn from them.]

Helen Maurer, Oct. 6, 2022