Thursday, September 23, 2010
About three years ago, Fort Ord Reuse Authority announced its plan to close a network of historic Army trails connecting the developed west side of Fort Ord (known among users as “Happy Trails,” south of Inter-Garrison Road) to 80-plus miles of federal Bureau of Land Management trails on the east.
That BLM land is sacred ground to hikers, bikers, youth educators, native plant lovers, dog trainers and horseback riders, among others. And access through Happy Trails has been the key to enjoying it for more than a decade.
But FORA needed to enforce the trail closures for liability and safety reasons while clearing old U.S. Army munitions, according to Stan Cook, programs manager for the Environmental Services Cooperative Agreement – the 2007 deal under which the Army is handing more than 3,300 contaminated acres to FORA.
Cook remembers that first FORA meeting after the closure announcement: “There were 121 very angry people there.”
Local mountain biker Henrietta Stern was among them. “I and other people were mobilized to say, ‘This is unacceptable,’” she recalls.
Instead of assuming a defensive stance, FORA staff invited representatives from those many upset users’ groups to monthly lunch meetings, where they focused on how to keep access to the BLM land open. Then they expanded to other efforts, like a volunteer clean-up of illegally dumped trash, long-term trail planning and trail-use etiquette rules..
Like a tiny biker taking off her training wheels, the Fort Ord Users’ Group is now ready to set out on its own as Fort Ord Recreation Trails Friends – or FORT Friends – which aims to reach beyond FORA to county planners, city officials and property owners.
“We’ve been acting as an incubator,” Cook says. “We’ll continue to have users’ group meetings, but Friends will spin off on their own. It’s been an honor to work with these people.”
One of the group’s first projects is to walk Fort Ord with GIS units, mapping what Stern describes as “the long-standing trails that don’t have names or numbers. One of our goals is to create an integrated trails network as Fort Ord is developed.”
Stern stresses that FORT Friends is so new, it still needs to find a meeting space and create a website. “The group started as a reaction to the potential closure of trails, and it’s evolving,” she says. “It’s like a seed in the spring getting ready to burst through the soil.”
The Fort Ord Reuse Plan already earmarks parcels for police training, a veterans’ cemetary and a horse park, which will likely gobble up some of the informal trails. But FORT Friends aims to make sure enough are preserved to maintain access to BLM land and connect paved bike trails with dirt ones.
In late August, FORT Friends met with the county supervisors’ Fort Ord Subcommittee, which is looking at the transfer of the Happy Trails area to the county, and related concerns about trail access. Unsanctioned bike courses and damaged turf have county staff worried about liability, so FORT Friends has offered to help prevent trail closures with volunteer patrols and public outreach.
“This group has expressed a willingness to sit down and analyze this network of trails, think about compatible and incompatible uses and help the jurisdictions make some rules, which is an incredibly complicated and delicate set of conversations,” says Supervisor Jane Parker, who sits on the subcommittee. “But they have already established that they work well together in sorting out some of these issues, and their goal seems to be the maximum use for everyone’s benefit.”
Stern even sees the potential for an integrated trails network to support sustainable tourism. She envisions brew pubs, art galleries and eco-tour operations turning visitor dollars into jobs and tax revenue.
“Maybe instead of seeing the ocean beauty, [tourists] would like to take a wildflower walk in Fort Ord,” she says. “It’s all associated with the use and love of these trails. We’re thinking big, we’re thinking long-term, we’re thinking legacy and opportunity.”