In its suit, the Audubon Society says the Open Space District’s environmental analysis of the Gary Giacomini Trail Improvements project was based on a generalized environmental evaluation of the entire road and trails management plan, which encompasses the district’s 16,000 acres of marshland, forests, creeks and rolling hills.
The suit claims this evaluation “does not analyze the potentially significant impacts to the Northern Spotted Owls from additional or greater intensity use by mountain bikers, dog walkers, horseback riders, joggers, and hikers resulting from legalizing and encouraging the use of previously unauthorized trails.”
Deputy County Counsel David Zaltsman said, “We believe we did an adequate initial study that determined that these trail projects were adequately covered by the Program EIR the district prepared for the road and trails management plan. Therefore there was no need to do a separate negative declaration or EIR.”
The Open Space District is also facing opposition to a proposal submitted by the Marin County Bicycle Coalition to open the Bob Middagh Trail, a half-mile trail between Corte Madera and Mill Valley, to bicycles. Currently, only hikers and horseback riders may use it.
The first court hearing on the matter is scheduled for March 14.
The northern spotted owl has been a federally listed threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1990. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated the Giacomini preserve as “critical habitat” for this species.
The Giacomini preserve consists of about 1,500 acres of open space lands on the north-facing slopes of the San Geronimo Ridge south of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. It is one of 32 preserves managed by the Open Space District.
Max Korten, Marin County’s acting parks director, said, “There was a whole network of social trails that had been used for a long time there, and what we’ve done is bring a few of them into our official designation and made some changes to them, and then we’re decommissioning and removing others to reduce the overall impact of the trail system.”
Barbara Salzman, president of the Marin Audubon Society, said, “That’s not our understanding. The trails they are closing are well away from nests whereas the trails they are going to make part of the system go right by nests.”
The plan calls for decommissioning 4,400 feet of existing unsanctioned trails. The suit states that the decommissioning of existing trails may increase the intensity of use on the remaining trails.
Korten said improvements to two of the newly designated Giacomini preserve trails — Contour Trail, an old logging road running for 5,966 feet about halfway up San Geronimo Ridge, and Candelero Canyon Trail, an old logging road extending 2,287 feet up Candalero Canyon — have been completed. He said they could be opened for use at any time.
According to the Open Space District suit, there are spotted owl nests within a quarter mile of both these trails.
Why doesn’t the Open Space District simply leave trails near spotted owl nests closed? Korten said if the public is completely shut out of wild places then support for protecting them will wane.
“Being out in parks and open spaces is an amazing experience that creates the stewards who will care for wildlife and open space preserves,” he said.
Salzman said, “How many hundreds of miles of trails do we have? That seems a rather fragile explanation.”
As the road and trails management plan is implemented, trails once open only to hikers and horseback riders are being opened to bicycles.
Several opponents of the bicycle coalition’s proposal for allowing bikes to share the Bob Middagh Trail voiced their opposition to county supervisors when they met Oct. 4. The supervisors serve as the Open Space District’s board members.
“I think there is some powerful lobbying going on by the bicycle coalition,” said Peter Hensel of Corte Madera. “Basically, it is hijacking the road and trails management plan.”
Gay Luce of Corte Madera, said, “I’ve walked the trail for almost 30 years, and I’ve stopped because those curves and fast bikes don’t add up to safety.”
Tiffany O’Hara, who can see the trail from the window of her house, said, “Hikers are afraid of becoming crash victims. They don’t want to take a walk in nature and come back home a paraplegic.”
Tom Boss, the bicycle coalition’s off-road and events director, also spoke during the meeting.
“Providing safe connectivity is one of the mission objectives of our off-road program, and the recommendation of the Open Space District staff to allow bikes on the Bob Middagh Trail advances that goal,” Boss said.
Boss said the Middagh trail is 5 feet wide in most places.
“You could literally drive a truck down this trail,” he said. “It’s mostly flat and has really good sight lines. There are only four turns on the entire trail, and there will be signs and pinch points to make sure people slow down around those turns.”
Korten said the Open Space District has received more than 400 comments about the proposal. He said he will announce his decision on the request soon.
CLICK HERE to read the original article in The Marin Independent Journal newspaper.