Happy Trails in San Diego

June 1, 2004
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How a progressive trails program promises to put San Diego County on the map.



Imagine strolling through an entire county completely on beautiful nature trails. Now imagine that all of these trails are mapped out and compiled into a comprehensive trails atlas. These are but two parts of a master trails plan being undertaken in the county of San Diego.

The San Diego County Trails Atlas is a component of the County Trails Program, which is being developed for the unincorporated areas of San Diego County, a network of 18 communities. Efforts to establish a trails program began in the mid-1970s, but were followed by controversies relating to development, adoption and coordination by local and regional groups. In 1982, the County of San Diego Board of Supervisors, at the request of a few communities, temporarily suspended the labors of the trails program. Several members of the other communities were upset. So a few years ago, the County Board of Supervisors defined a feasible plan of attack to rekindle the Trails Program and to tie together each of San Diego County's communities by nature trails.

"My personal vision is that it will put San Diego County 'on the map' for trails," says Maryanne Vancio, the trails program coordinator, with no pun intended. "Sure, [people] come here for the zoo... but now they'll have even more to enjoy. We have such diverse biological resources, from the ocean to the mountains to the desert, and we want them all to be connected."

Today's community-based approach to the trails plan is being developed through the efforts of San Diego County's Departments of Parks and Recreation, Planning and Land Use, and Public Works. Following the initial contact among the three agencies and the community groups, 18 of the 26 agreed to participate in the program. Vancio says the remainder of the communities are in the north and east portions of the county and that they consider their areas to have a significant amount of trails already.

Vancio says that other counties have adopted a trails program, but that San Diego's "will be a model for other counties."

Following an extensive, formal community outreach program, in which all communities were asked to make respective "wish lists" for the trails program, including preferred locations for new trails and the quantity of trails desired, the county agencies made a plan for the collective trail web.

"Regional trails will connect to communities and public lands, and to 18 cities. These trails are long distance trails that traverse north-to-south and east-to-west," Vancio says. "These trails are"¦ in the latter stages of development or are developed."

Some of the county trails are corridors that are a quarter of a mile long with lots of cross sections. Many pathways (trails adjacent to public roads that are installed in public road rights of way) need to be created to provide safe conduits for non-motorized users to get from one trail to another. Planning such a build project has its challenging elements. In addition to private land rights issues and trail easements with broken connections, development lends some complications as well.

"I think one of the problems is that San Diego is going through another growth spurt," Vancio says. "A developer may eventually build over the trails currently there." This, however, doesn't seem to be a great concern for the county, since the need and desire for a solid, connected trails system will undoubtedly increase as population levels grow--and because the county departments have partnered stronger than ever before.

According to Vancio, there are already county trail easements completed, mostly in subdivision developments and on private land. But, the county doesn't know how many trails exist in the area or what their conditions are. Getting that information requires some dedicated location determination, mapping and GIS work.

"I said, 'You'll have to go out there and physically look over the trails,'" Vancio says, adding that the trails had to be mapped individually by community.

Out in the field, trailbuilder Donald Hays collected data on most all of the manmade features and geolocated each trail in the San Diego communities using his GPS receiver.

Geolocating the Trails

To assess the conditions of the existing trails and surrounding land, Vancio first considered using sources within the county. But she wanted more information than just the geographic locations of the trails.

"I wanted someone with trail building experience," Vancio says. "I knew some people from trails conferences. I found someone who would work perfectly. He owns his own trail building company. He already had a trail log database of all different types of amenities like soil condition, slope, etc."

The man Vancio speaks of is Donald Hays, a 30-year veteran of trail construction, reconstruction, planning, design, maintenance and consulting. Hays has numerous trail building projects of note to his name, including Pebble Beach in California, Lolo National Forest in Montana and Willamette Forest in Oregon. Hays' clients include the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and county and private land owners. Hays' experience has helped him to polish his skills over time; he now offers GPS location, data collection and GIS services.

"As I was building trails, the Forest Service began saying it would use GPS to geolocate their trails. A lot of the trails in their federal system aren't on maps," Hays says. "It turns out that they have a trail assessment procedure [where] they use a measuring wheel and start at the beginning of the trail with a notepad. As they were walking down the trail they would come upon a waterbar, a sign, etc. They would fill in this form [noting] that the sign was made out of plywood and other specific details. Then they would give what condition it was in and advisement for repair. Or write that there were no signs. And then they'd continue [walking] to, say, a waterbar. They'd give details on that. They would have this tally of [a] trail. And I thought, 'Why don't I digitize this form and I can go out with the GPS equipment and geolocate exactly where all these points are on the trail"¦ [then I can] show them exactly where these signs are, etc., and they could put out a bid to a contractor who would know exactly where the trail is in relation to the map. I started this about five years ago."

This geolocating service has helped Hays in the San Diego County trails project. He performed a sample trail assessment for the county and provided data to Vancio, who in turn made sure it worked with the department of public works database.

Once the decision was made to hire Hays for the trails assessments, Vancio coordinated with him on which community trails to assess on which days. Hays then plotted out the plan of attack for each community. Out in the field Hays collected data on most all of the manmade features and geolocated each trail. Using his Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) GPS Pathfinder Pro XRS receiver unit, Hays collected data real-time to the submeter accurate level and overlayed the data on the ortho aerial photos and easements Vancio and her team had provided him.

"I use [the] Pathfinder to do the differential correction and the post-processing," Hays says. "I offer [the county] the data in the format that they want and in the coordinate system they need. I offer a map of the property, the general region and the line data of that property."

Hays also takes the spikes out of the echoes in the data and splices all related segments of a trail together before turning it over to the San Diego GIS department. He downloads data into ArcView shape files (ESRI, Redlands, Calif.) and delivers them two or three communities at a time to the county.

A Blessing in Disguise

When all plans and direction were finalized for Hays to begin assessing the San Diego trails last fall, the San Diego fires hit. Fortunately, the money for the trails program was already allocated to the project. The Southern California fires turned out to be beneficial for Hays. And he says, the area still maintains much of its beauty.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to build trails because the fire came through and took all the brush out of there," Hays says. "You can see the ground and [still] the flowers are blooming. Now [I] can build a well-maintained trail with no effort at all. The larger brush still has root balls and is growing fast. The oak trees were not hurt because the fire hit the low-lying brush."

Required to assess 400 miles of trails, Hays says he is on track and hopes to be done by October. Once the project is finalized, new programs will easily be brought on-board and added to the system Hays has set up. "The extent of his information is plentiful," Vancio says. "Someone will be able to go out there and [easily] GPS that new trail."

A Natural Draw

The county of San Diego may, by the end of this year, have an approved trails program and begin developing communities with pristine trails for walkers, runners, hikers, equestrian riders and mountain bikers. With trails winding from one community to another, county residents could soon see visitors wanting to visit their areas for more than just the acclaimed San Diego Zoo. And as Vancio says, it just may put San Diego "on the map" as an example for a great trails program.

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