Trail Advocacy in San Diego, CA with SDMBA

A group of volunteers fixing the trail at Rock House

Meet Susie

Trail advocacy work in San Diego is the long play. For the curious and complainers alike, you should know, the tortoise wins this race. To that end, celebrations are short lived and victories are often just the beginning. That is a difficult proposition. For those who prefer doing work to completion and moving on to the next, the feeling of perpetual incompletion is exhausting. I am one such person.

Susie Murphy is not. She is the San Diego Mountain Bike Association (SDMBA) Director, and is the rare breed who thrives in ambiguity and process. When asked if there are frequent interruptions in long term strategy she answers with a breathy, “Regularly,” as if to say “duh.” Fair response. The brevity speaks volumes. A pause, and she offers more:

Prioritizing is really hard, but we have to be nimble enough and flexible enough to address immediate trail needs and land manager concerns, while keeping an eye on long-range plans and agreements with other land managers. Trail advocacy work is not a job or volunteer opportunity for somebody requiring immediate gratification. You have to have a vision for future generations. There are things we are working on now that are 20-30 years out. You get yourself inserted into plans for things and you say ‘there has to be trails here, or has to be trails there’, and it could be something that gets shelved for way in the future.

Sweetwater Bike Park

One such plan nearing completion that began years before her role as director in 2015, is the Sweetwater Bike Park in Chula Vista. While not a victory in the traditional sense of new trail, SDMBA work as consultant, advocate, and financial partner to the county has breathed new life into the purpose and need for such an organization throughout San Diego.

Our volunteers and board members began talking to elected officials, land managers, and the county Parks and Recreation department, to point out the recreational advantage and potential cost savings over traditional recreation outlets which already served the county.

10 years in the making, the park will be open to the public by Christmas. What’s more, other municipalities in the county have begun work on similar projects and are at various stages of development. SDMBA has become a most trusted resource and is involved in some capacity with all of them.

As for the more recognized and traditional role of trail advocacy. . .


The Trails

There are parts of the country where time, capital, resources, values, and politics align to generate miles of new trail. These locations are laboratories for experimenting with trail design and community integration. In San Diego, victories are measured in feet. Why? It’s complicated.

One reason is space. I’m reminded that in San Diego county, we have the most federally listed endangered species in the country. We have the most Indian reservations in the country. We have 3.5 million people projected to be 5 million over the next 20 years. More development. More houses. This all equals less useful space for new trails and a threat to the trails that currently exist. Enter the highly complex and only a little boring subject of land mitigation.

What is land mitigation you say? It’s protected land purchased by developers to balance what is destroyed during housing construction. Like many things, its theory is commendable; its execution, poor. Mitigation land is often managed by interests that prevent public access. This results in protected boundaries surrounded by housing developments with little consideration for resident recreation. The obvious question remains. . .how do you keep residents from exploring the land that initially drew them to the development? Kicking the answer can down the road is how illegal trails take root and land gets damaged that mitigation entities try to preserve. There is more.

Perhaps most frustrating, and as is often the case, different land managers with competing interests control sections of land trails run through. At Peñasquitos Canyon’s Del Mar Mesa for example, there are no less than 5 agencies that have a piece of the land pie. Controlled by the City of San Diego, San Diego County, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Coastal Commission, and private interests, trail development requirements issued by one are different for another. Little continuity exists between any of them. Thus begins bureaucratic hell. To us common folks, we scream “Absurdity!” Yet, this is the reality Susie and her team of volunteers face daily.

At times, advocacy hurdles make efforts sound like a lost cause. But there is much to be hopeful for. SDMBA isn’t short on ambition. Recent setbacks at Orosco Ridge have paused the momentum generated for new trails between 2017-2018, while renewed efforts call for 20 miles of new trail. . .

20 miles!

Recall earlier that victories throughout San Diego are measured in feet. An effort of this scope requires a tremendous amount of coordination, patience, alignment, and, well, luck. If perpetual trail work approval on Black Mountain and the new Black Widow trail on the mountain’s west side are any indication, and given the credibility of SDMBA regional volunteer advocates throughout the county, I do believe the Orosco project will succeed.

So, now what?

There is the simple stuff, sure. Don’t be a trail moron that leaves the horse people, runner people, dog people, people people, and the like, a bad name for the rest of the mountain bike community. Smile to trail users. Say hi. Get off your bike for horses. All of that is good; and necessary. But, for SDMBA to actually be effective, pockets are required. They don’t need to be deep. Time is needed as well. Neither of which, many of us have. Perhaps, more accurately, aren’t willing to provide. 

Getting ready for the upcoming SDMBA volunteer appreciation party, Susie shared that there were nearly 9000 volunteer hours, 100 events, 50 trail work events, and 400 individuals that gave hours in 2019. Inspiring.

For my part, check sent. I’m an official member of SDMBA. Come join the party.

Image above courtesy of Jose Galaz and SDMBA. Used with permission.