Despite equestrians pleas to restrict Live Oak Equestrian Trail to horseback riders, Santa Barbara County Parks Department is moving forward on a pilot program that will open up the route to hikers this week.
However, a county supervisor said dogs, bicycles and motorcycles will not be allowed on the trail that starts east of Cachuma Lake and winds into the mountains along its north side.
Considered moderately difficult, Live Oak Trail starts at Live Oak Camp off Highway 154 and loops about 15 miles up and down hillsides, along ridge tops and through open valleys.
Stock water is available along the way, and the trail “could easily be ridden for several days without backtracking,” according to the Trailmeister.com website.
Herds of wild horses, mountain lions, bears, bobcats and deer populate the 2,984 acres of open land surrounding the trail that, except for an occasional hiker, has been used primarily by riders on horses and mules since it opened in November 1987.
Members of the Santa Ynez Valley Riders and independent equestrians would like to keep it that way.
“It is the only equestrian-only area in the entire county,” said rider Lori Weiss, who predicted grazing cattle and herds of feral stallions will pose a threat to unsuspecting hikers, mountain bikers and motorcyclists who have no experience dealing with such animals.
At the Jan. 11 meeting of the County Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Committee, members were told an average of just 2.4 people use the trail each day, which contributed to the plan to open it up to other user groups in six-month phases.
Only hikers would be allowed to join equestrians on the trail for the first six months. Then mountain bikers would be added to the mix for the next six months.
Officials would then spend six months observing interaction between the groups to determine how to manage them and what controls needed to be implemented.
In a long open discussion, committee members agreed the main question was how to keep equestrians safe while adding other users.
Equestrians are also concerned about their safety.
“Horses are prey animals [and] they spook very easily,” rider C.C. Wellman last week.
Rider Carla Renard agreed: “Horses do unexpected things.”
Mule rider Pat Fish questioned the lack of opportunity for public comment and said no study has been done of potential effects of allowing other users on the trail.
“There will be impacts between the riders and hikers who will undoubtedly bring off-leash dogs,” Fish said.
That assessment was echoed by equestrian Suzanne Duca, who said she had been attacked by eight dogs on Summerland beach and felt lucky to not be stomped to death after being bucked off her rearing horse as a dog was ripping out its chest.
Other concerns were raised by equestrians like Kathy Rosenthal, 2020 president of the Santa Ynez Valley Riders, who said County Parks’ plan to collect fees through the honor system using an “iron ranger” would be a “revenue leak” that wouldn’t allow data collection on who was using the trail.
She said there is no plan to sanitize the entry portal after each use, as required by the county’s COVID-19 safety regulations, and fire danger from the overgrown parking lot had not been addressed.
Jessica Schley, a member of WE Watch and Santa Ynez Valley Riders who said her expertise is in land and water policy and conservation, said the lands around the trail are a critical source of clean water for Cachuma Lake.
While equestrian use is compatible with that, she said increasing the use and types of users there will have a negative impact on water resources.
“The area’s primary highest and best use is as a healthy oak savannah and foothill chaparral rangeland ecosystem that provides clean water to the lake,” Schley said.
She also claimed County Parks only had purview over the trail head and should never have jurisdiction over the rest of the trail.
But County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni said trail use was part of an enhanced recreation alternative considered in an environmental impact report conducted from 2002 to 2011 as well as a management agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation approved by supervisors in 2012.
“So we did look at this and did advise County Parks [it is] within their discretion to initiate this program,” Ghizzoni said.
Supervisor Joan Hartmann, whose 3rd District encompasses the trail, said she and equestrians had met with County Parks officials, and no dogs would be allowed on the trail and the plan to allow bikes has been tabled.
“I think it’s appropriate to have a pilot program to allow hikers at Live Oak,” Hartmann said. “I don’t believe exclusive use that would exclude hikers is appropriate.”
She also said a park host lives near the trailhead, has an all-terrain vehicle and will provide adequate oversight of trail use.
This article has been updated to correct the length of the trails and the number of acres they serve and to clarify which group met Jan. 11.