Closure of Coal Oil Point Reserve Trails Unimaginative, Unfair

I’ve got bad news for those of you who like to jog or hike around the Coal Oil Point Reserve. You will discover that while you were all away for Christmas break, the university has blocked off, and is in the process of obliterating, all the reserve’s internal trails. The only trail which remains is the route along the edge of the Devereux Slough leading to the beach. There is no alternative route back from there, so if there’s a high tide or you simply prefer to stay in the reserve you’ll just have to turn around and go back the way you came. This also means that it is no longer possible to access the reserve from Ellwood Mesa, or vice-versa.

Notices displayed on the trail barriers indicate that this is the implementation of an agreed plan between UCSB, the Goleta City Council and the County of Santa Barbara. The notices assure us that the objective is to create a balance between public access and environmental restoration, or some such. But it is surely a strange balance when there are now no internal access paths at all within the reserve.

I have jogged along these trails almost every other morning for the past 15 years, often pausing simply to enjoy the quiet beauty of the place. So for me, and I’m sure for many others both inside and outside the university, the destruction of these trails will seriously reduce the quality of my life. There is no balance in it for me. All I see is the creation of an enormous wild garden which no one can appreciate from within. I ask myself how even the university’s researchers will be able to gain access from now on without causing more damage trampling about than if they had a few trails to follow.

It isn’t clear to me what the rationale behind the closure of these trails might be. I don’t see that the mere presence of people causes unacceptable disturbance. I can only think it may be argued that the closure was necessary because of damage caused by mountain bikes. This is certainly a genuine problem. Bikes are banned from the reserve, but it only takes one antisocial and inconsiderate biker after a rainy day to cause a disproportionate amount of damage. There is even a rogue horse rider on thankfully rare occasions.

But the damage caused by this thoughtlessness is confined to the trails. The only, if very annoying, adverse effect is to make the path very uneven for subsequent joggers and hikers like me. It is true that the damage is exacerbated by erosion during winter storms, but this tends to form gullies and deepen the paths, rather than widen them. There is no observable encroachment on the rest of the reserve.

The solution to this problem is surely to manage the upkeep of the paths, not to erase them. Regrading them once a year after the rain would probably be sufficient, as would adding a few steps in steep areas. And although it would probably never be possible to keep out every horse or sufficiently determined mountain biker, it would surely be possible to fence in the remaining land boundary of the reserve which is not fenced already, and install entrance gates of the kind which until recently stood on Coal Oil Point to prevent bikes accessing the beach.

It is extremely disappointing that the university should pursue such an unimaginative and aggressive reserve management policy, and that both the Goleta City Council and the County of Santa Barbara should apparently have endorsed it. I earnestly hope that whatever committees are responsible for these things will get together and reconsider. I think of all the nature reserves and parks that I have visited over the years which have been able to achieve a much happier balance than this between the presence of people and the restoration of the natural environment. Surely Coal Oil Point Reserve can do better.

Michael Freeston lives in Goleta.