Crackdown at nature reserve met with outcry from mountain bikers

CARLSBAD, Calif. – The state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has been flooded with complaints since announcing a new crackdown on illegal mountain biking trails at a North County nature reserve.

New efforts to protect the Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve began over the weekend, with new signs installed and an increased presence of CDFW officers in the park to enforce existing laws on trail use. Violators could face a $250 fine.

Four citations were issued to mountain bikers over the weekend, officials said.

From destroying signs to carving out illegal trails, berms and jumps that disrupt animals and the area's natural habitat, officials say the reserve is under recurring abuse. Some illegal trails plow through areas that previously supported rare plants, while others disrupt the habitat of gnatcatchers, small, federally protected birds native to Southern California, officials said.

“When you get people just doing what they want out there, we’re going to lose our ability to maintain these species' viability,” said CDFW’s Ed Pert.

While the state acknowledged that misuse of the nature preserve is likely the product of a small group of bad actors, they released video evidence from over recent years on Saturday to bolster their claim that the issue has reached a breaking point.

The series of videos shows mountain bikers pushing, pulling, kicking and throwing signs that mark trails as closed or not for use by bikers.

The reserve, known by bikers as “Lake Calavera Trails,” is the primary practice location for the San Diego North Coastal Scholastic Mountain Bike team. The team, made up of 40 riders from high schools and middle schools around northern San Diego county, practices three times a week at three different locations.

“I was really bummed because Calavera is probably the closest spot to my house where I can get out and have fun with my friends, but now that I can’t, it’s such a bummer,” Josh Lombardi, a freshman, told FOX 5.

In a lengthy response to the new emphasis on enforcing trail laws, the San Diego Mountain Biking Association said Fish and Wildlife has never done enough to develop a plan for trails in the area, which have been enjoyed by the public for decades.

"Periodic half-hearted attempts to manage the property failed to yield any semblance of a trails plan, and no attempt has been made to direct impacts to legal access points or established trails," the group wrote in part, saying they readily acknowledge that the current "haphazard patchwork of trails" can have damaging effects on the ecosystem.

"Given the history of mountain bike use at CHER ... it is highly unlikely that an outright ban on, and expulsion of, mountain bikes will be successful. Rather, such efforts will likely lead to a breakdown in cooperative inclination among user groups."

Instead the association asked for officials to collaborate with the groups that regularly use the reserve to develop a plan for legal use that also mitigates the effect on the environment.

Wildlife officials acknowledged that mountain bikers were not the only issue facing the preserve, listing vandalism, theft, drone use, motorcycle use, horse-riding and off-leash dogs among other common violations that can impact the area's delicate ecosystem. New enforcement efforts will target those violations, as well.

“CDFW has no interest in being punitive. We just want the illegal behavior to stop,” Pert said. “So we are getting the word out to anyone who might knowingly or unknowingly ride illegally on CHER. Please don’t ride there. You could be fined."

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