Guest Column

Should wilderness parks be closed to visitors?

By Hallie Jones, Executive Director, Laguna Canyon Foundation

If you’ve spent time hiking or biking around Laguna over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed some change. The same congestion that hits our downtown in the summer months has spread to our trails. Our pristine wilderness is no longer a secret – in fact, it’s become a destination for locals and visitors from all over. 

Our estimates show that visitorship to our wilderness parks has skyrocketed, with preliminary data showing at least 500,000 annual visitors to Laguna Canyon. That’s half a million people out on 11,000 acres each year. In many ways, that’s a good thing. When people get outside, they get connected to the wilderness. They learn to love it. And after all, we protect the things we love. So in theory, getting people outside, on our trails, means that we have more people who care about the land, and more people who will fight to preserve it. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo from LCF website

Restoration of habitat is an ongoing challenge

Unfortunately, what we’ve seen recently is that reality doesn’t match up with that theory. We’ve got more people on the land, but more of those people are treating our parks like giant outdoor playgrounds instead of the imperiled habitat that it is. We have people hiking and riding outside of the authorized trail system. People littering and bringing their dogs into parts of the park that are reserved for wildlife. Distracted hikers with earphones on. We also have more user conflicts than ever, including a recent collision between a hiker and a mountain biker that left the hiker unconscious while the biker left the scene. 

We all bear some responsibility. Who among us hasn’t been tempted to take a shortcut or check out some beautiful rock formation? I know I have. But I also know that the pressure on our coastal canyons has increased beyond its capacity. The negligible impacts of behavior thirty years ago, when there were just a handful of hikers and bikers who explored the park, can’t even compare to the impacts of 500,000 visitors. Which means that we all need to change the way we think about our wilderness, interact with our wilderness, and promote what we’re doing on Instagram and Facebook. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Hikers & bikers are vastly increasing in numbers (please note dogs are not allowed on most trails)

If we don’t, we run the risk of losing these parks forever. We run the risk of the wildlife agencies and land managers deciding that the habitat is simply too damaged, and the parks need to close to visitors. After all, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park were created for habitat value, not for recreation. In some cases, this land was set aside specifically as mitigation for development elsewhere. Which means its primary purpose is as habitat for our endangered plants and animals. My right to hike or trail run is secondary to this goal. 

There are other options out there. We could move to a permit system, where only a certain number of visitors are allowed into the parks each day. We could have specific open days, and close some days. We could have one-directional trails. Increased enforcement could include expulsions from the park. Or, we could close the park to half of our users, and only allow foot traffic (no mountain bikes at all). 

I’ve got a better solution. It’s simple, but it involves every single person who uses our parks. How about we all just start behaving a little better? How about we take responsibility for our parks and remind visitors not to dump trash? How about we stop posting unauthorized trails on Instagram and Strava? And above all, how about we work to eliminate user conflicts by slowing down, stepping aside and saying hello?

I certainly don’t want to see our parks closed to people. After all, I use the parks too. Being outside is my solace, my favorite way to spend a morning, and, of course, my professional mission. 

But if we can’t all work together to keep this very special canyon preserved, that might be the only way to make sure it’s still beautiful for generations to come.