Locals squabble with the state over the Big Sur Coastal Trail planning process.

Cliff Hanger: Rocky Path: California Coastal Commisison’s Lee Otter says the current state of the coastal trail doesn’t do “justice to the scenery and the character of the California coast.”—Kera Abraham

Several wads of toilet paper litter a shady cypress grove overlooking the Pacific in Garrapata State Park. My trail guide, Lee Otter of the Coastal Commission, jokingly identifies them as “Kleenex flowers.”

Continuing along the subtly marked dirt path, Otter points out gravel indicating that the old county road once snaked through here. Within arm’s reach, butterflies flit through buckwheat blossoms in rusty orange, fuchsia, blush and white. Farther up, we round a curve where the trail crumbles precariously under our feet, the slope dropping hundreds of feet into the sea. “Instability makes for great scenery,” Otter says with a grin.

Our stroll through Soberanes Point in Big Sur illustrates both the potential and the challenges in building a continuous trail along California’s coast. Today, hikers traversing the route encounter inconsistent lengths of trail, some breathtaking and others anticlimactic, broken up by sketchy stretches along the shoulder of Highway 1 as it snakes 75 miles from the Carmel River to San Carpoforo Creek.

After years of talk, the California Coastal Conservancy has finally secured $75,000 in federal money and $100,000 of its own funds to draft a plan for the trail’s Big Sur segment.

Even as the long-delayed trail plan finds its financial footing, it’s already generating resistance from a group of Big Sur locals who feel they’re being left out the process. While most support the trail effort, they say it won’t work without the solid backing of the historically cantankerous locals. The Conservancy counters that professional consultants are needed to work out the trail’s tricky technical features.

To understand the squabble and how to resolve it, Otter says, it’s important to understand Big Sur’s history. As we hike, he describes the coastal trail as a concept that has faded in and out of the public’s vision, like Big Sur’s myriad paths, for 150 years.

• • •

In the mid-1800s, two trails offered the only land-based routes into and out of Big Sur. The construction of a county road, and later Highway 1, smothered some parts of those trails, but others remained in use in state parks.

A 1972 state proposition called for a continuous hiking trail system along the California coast, and the 1976 Coastal Act required local jurisdictions to figure out where to put it. The Big Sur Coast Land Use Plan, drafted in the mid-’70s, also calls for continuous trail corridors parallel to the coast, but a central trail planning effort didn’t get off the ground for another 25 years.

A 2001 Assembly bill directed the Coastal Conservancy, in cooperation with the Coastal Commission and State Parks, to identify what was needed to complete the trail.  After two years of study, the agency reported that most of Big Sur’s existing segments, broken up by lengths along Highway 1, need “substantial improvement.” State law directed the Conservancy to take the lead in developing a blueprint for an improved, continuous trail. The federal grant requires a steering committee made up of key landowners – staff from state and regional parks departments, the Coastal Commission, CalTrans, land trusts and community members – to oversee the planning process.

While the notion of a coastal trail slogs through the decades, Big Sur’s existing trails evolve. New segments are built even as others go fallow, erode away down the slopes, or are washed out by the tides. Fences and gaps break up multiple trails through state parks. Some of the stretches along the bluffs, which offer the most breathtaking vistas, are crumbling into the sea.

In order to transform the coastal trail from a concept into a reality, Conservancy staff will need to identify existing trails, repair those in bad shape, and build new connecting paths. That’s where politics come in.

• • •

In May, a group of Big Sur residents met at the Grange Hall with Otter and Trish Chapman, the project leader for the Conservancy’s Big Sur trail plan, to hash out their concerns. The discussion became heated, with most locals highly suspicious of the state-controlled trail planning process. Chapman defended the Conservancy’s right to make the big decisions – with input from residents.

But the locals wanted answers. Would trails encroach on private property? Would they be well maintained and equipped with bathroom facilities? What about parking? And funding? What role would locals play in the planning process? Chapman admits that the Conservancy hasn’t offered any assurances to put their fears to rest. “It’s true that we don’t send out a lot of communications on [the trail], but that’s not because anything is being kept from people – just that nothing’s happening,” she says.

The agency is commissioning a master plan, Chapman says, in order to finally offer locals a blueprint of where the trail will go and how it will be managed – and there will be plenty of opportunity for public involvement. “There’s no point in us doing this project without people feeling heard,” she says.

But for now, one group of locals feels like their voice is falling on deaf ears. When the Conservancy put out a request for proposals, Jack Ellwanger, founder of the Big Sur conservancy group Pelican Network, and 11 others – calling themselves the Big Sur Coastal Trail Collaborative – drew up a bid that emphasized community-driven trail planning and maintenance.

The Conservancy hasn’t yet finalized its selections, but Chapman says the collaborative’s bid is not among the top candidates. “It’s very important that the [consulting] team have experience in trail design, ADA requirements, how you successfully build a trail through a sensitive habitat area, the techniques in using trail design to address issues that property owners might have, and safety issues,” she says. “In that regard, their team had no experience.”

Ellwanger is upset by the rejection, but not surprised. “Big Sur residents are accustomed to agency disdain,” he wrote in an e-mail to Pelican Network members. “We are only included in a cursory manner when private property is acquired by government agencies. It is a charade in the name of conservation which enriches the brokers but impoverishes the community spirit.”

Otter understands Chapman’s need to follow protocol, but he also empathizes with the Big Sur residents who want input on the planning process. And he warns that, if a majority of locals aren’t on board, the community could wage its own campaign of resistance: opposing trail construction at county hearings, filing appeals with the Commission and refusing to negotiate public access on private property.

“We need to make sure this is a community-based plan,” he says from our perch on the Soberanes knoll. He pauses as a vulture passes over the wildflower-streaked hills, angling toward the sea. “That’s not the way the state usually does business.”

The approximate auction price paid for a 1935 SJ Speedster Duesenberg, the highest ever sale price for an American car. Known as the Mormon Meteor (for setting land-speed records in the Utah salt flats), the car will compete in the Pre-war Sports and Racing category at this year’s Concours d’ Elegance. Source: Pebble Beach Concours d’ Elegance.

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