Mono County Assistant Planner Heather deBethizy and Community Development Director Scott Burns presented an ambitious vision for a 350-mile Eastern Sierra Regional Trail (ESRT) at Tuesday’s Mono County Tourism and Film Commission meeting in Lee Vining. DeBethizy and Burns offered this trail system concept as a potential project for the Commission to champion, and were met with a mostly positive reception.
According to the ESRT Draft, “the goals for this elaborate trail system are to link communities together and to showcase the county’s unique cultural, geographic, and geologic features.” The non-motorized trail system would begin at Topaz Lake to the north and end in Round Valley to the south. It would combine 179 miles of “Historic” and 170 miles of “Community” trails to create the approximately 350-mile system. The Historic Trail would “feature points of interest pertaining to eras of settlement and mining,” while the Community Trail would create “a more direct connection between Eastern Sierra communities.”
The two trails would meet at Bridgeport, Mammoth, and Crowley Lake Dam, providing smaller recreational loops within the larger system. DeBethizy and Burns anticipated a range of users from hikers, equestrians and bikers, to cross-country skiers and snowshoers. A signage system would help users determine which trail sections might best meet their needs.
The trail concept originates from a 2002 draft document, prepared by then-University of Wisconsin grad student Dan Patterson, who was interning for the County at the time. The document was previously reviewed by the Board of Supervisors, and recently dusted off by the County’s Planning Department.
However, the proposed project faces several key challenges. The first: currently the conceptual trail crosses through land shared by many public entities, including the California Department of Fish and Game, Inyo National Forest, Toiyable National Forest, the Bureau of Land Management, and Water Districts, as well as privately owned parcels. “One of the biggest challenges will be trying to coordinate with all of the different land owners,” deBethizy said.
Another challenge she identified is “making sure we’re creating the ESRT in an environmentally sensitive way.” The proposed system would use established trails as much as possible to minimize impact, and the County would file all the necessary environmental documents, potentially including both CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act).
Given its scope, the project’s final challenge will be funding. “This is not an inexpensive project at all,” said Commission Danna Stroud. Commissioner Dan Lyster likened the project to the Hoover Dam and Digital 395 in scale. “But this isn’t as quote ‘urgent’ as Digital 395,” he added, “so it might not get the same impetus behind it.”
DeBethizy explained that the proposed project is in such an early conceptual stage that it isn’t actively seeking funding yet. She did speculate that the project could gain funding through the Corridor Management Plan (CMP), which is part of a larger effort to acquire a National Scenic Byway Designation for U.S. 395.
According to County Economic Development Manager Alicia Vennos, the CMP “is a written document that specifies the actions, operational practices, and strategies to maintain the archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and intrinsic qualities of our byway.” Should the ESRT be listed as a CMP action item, it would qualify for what Vennos characterized as “an incredible amount of funding” from the National Scenic Byway Designation.
Until the National Scenic Byway Designation is granted, deBethizy said the ESRT could also be integrated into the Mono County Regional Trail Plan (RTP) as a conceptual idea, or added to the Mono County Economic Development Strategic Plan (MCEDSP), a new document that will provide a five-year economic development strategy with a focus on identifying opportunities for economic growth and sustainability and prioritizing projects for implementation in Mono County.