The Adventure Trails System pilot project has generated its share of controversy in Inyo County. Since the project’s proposal in 2012, Inyo residents have expressed concerns about the Trails System’s impact on properties adjacent to the proposed routes, given noise, air quality, and safety issues, as well as the System’s impact on public lands.
Thursday’s special Inyo Board of Supervisors meeting in the Legion Hall in Independence was packed to the gills, and public comment after lunch quickly showed that the divide between proponents of and opponents to the Trails System remain almost evenly split.
Editor’s note: As of 6:20 p.m., the Inyo Board had unanimously approved the CEQA EIR (State required environmental impact report) The Board then unanimously approved each of the seven proposed adventure trail routes collectovely. Those trail segments are listed at the end of this story.
Randy Gillespie, representing Adventure Trails System of the Eastern Sierra, LLC (ATSES), sought to diffuse some of the controversy at the outset by explaining his group had narrowed its scope from the proposed 36 to only 8 combined-use trails. These trails are intended to link Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) use areas with service and lodging facilities. “We heard from residents, and we heard their concerns,” Gillespie said. Yet he added that he couldn’t demonstrate the potential success of the program “if we don’t put it on the ground before it sunsets.”
The hope is that the access created by Adventure Trails will promote OHV tourism and bring a much-needed economic boost to struggling towns.
“If this isn’t the program, who comes in to help these small communities?” wondered Steve Toomey of ATSES. “We need something desperately to happen.”
The Adventure Trails System was made possible when the California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 628, which allows Inyo County to establish a pilot project to designate combined-use highway segments up to 10 miles long on unincorporated County roads.
The pilot project, spearheaded by Dick Noles of Bishop, initially included 17 proposed combined-use roads in the Bishop area (four within the City), three in the Aberdeen area, two in the Big Pine area, three in the Northern Inyo Range, four in the Independence area, and seven in the Lone Pine area.
That number came down to five in the Bishop area, one in the Aberdeen area, one in the Independence area, and one in the Lone Pine area.
Because the proposed Aberdeen trail changed its ending point, the Board chose to defer a decision on that trail to a later date.
Should the County certify the draft Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the 36 routes, although it would only potentially approve seven of those routes, the FEIR approval would open the door to the subsequent approval of routes without any additional changes to the environmental document.
The seven remaining trails largely avoid any contact with residential properties. OHV drivers using the trails would still be required to carry a valid license, insurance, and obey the speed limit and road hours, said Inyo County Public Works Transportation Planner Courtney Smith.
However, numerous meeting attendees questioned whether the Sheriff’s Department would be able to enforce these requirements, considering the challenge of reporting vehicles that carry only a small green sticker rather than a license plate for considering the challenge of reporting vehicles that carry only a small green sticker rather than a license plate for identification.
“These routes can be patrolled, monitored, and enforced with the existing resources,” said Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutz.
Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control Control District Inspector Jan Stoudemire also raised the question of how the County would address dust pollution. “I inspected Buttermilk Road after a complaint,” she said. “My reaction from Inyo County was a bit of a disappointment. [Inyo County Road Superintendent] Bob Brown was unable to do anything whatsoever; he said there was no money, and the one water truck was committed elsewhere.”
Stoudemire said that if she observes a dust violation on OHV roads, she will ticket the property owner; in this case, Inyo County.
Marty Hornick of the U.S. Forest Service argued that the draft FEIR up for approval by the Board lacked a concrete monitoring and mitigation plan that would create a baseline of data before the trails open, provide periodic monitoring after that, and outline mitigation measures other than signage.
The lack of available data on volume and types of use on existing OHV routes came into play when California Highway Patrol (CHP) Officer Brian Mackenzie explained how he had determined certain proposed routes were safe.
Mackenzie explained that he had made his determinations based on CHP safety requirements. However, lacking data, he added that his decisions on proposed routes came down to “speculation and common sense. If it was 50/50 [safe or unsafe], I erred on the side of opening them [the routes] so we could create more good data, knowing we could close them at any time.”
“This doesn’t seem to be in line with the CHP’s mandate of ‘safety first,’” noted public commenter Dan Connor.
Because many arguments in favor of the Adventure Trails System have stressed its economic benefit to the County, several opponents took on this claim.
“The entire project is sold on its economics, but if you look at the County’s own analysis, the motorized demographic actually provides a very small impact,” said Andrew Schurr of Bishop. Schurr noted that a County report found only a .2 percent increase over County GDP as a result of motorized tourism.
“It’s illogical to spend this much time now and in perpetuity to cater to such a small demographic,” Schurr argued.
But proponents of the Trails System offered an impassioned defense. “This is a pilot program,” said David Tanksley. “We’ve got to learn somewhere. To assume there’s not going to be economic benefit, that’s an assumption.”
Dan Stone, representing Veterans Helping Veterans, noted that OHVs empower those who might not be able to enjoy the mountains any other way. “I want my friends who are disabled to be able to be out there,” he said. “We need this.” Another member of the group, Steve Canter, noted that creating better access from OHV trails to lodging and amenities would benefit the disabled community.
“Veterans and the disabled can ride all over this County,” Michael Prather replied in his public address. “They’re not denied access.”
June Lake Junction owner Lynne Greer saw the pilot program as an opportunity. “This allows us to give information to the people that need it. It’s a system to help manage our lands better.”
“If we had this program in place, it would stop a lot of this [land abuse]; it would control it,” agreed Sam Dean.
Doug Brown of Bishop captured the sentiment of many: “Inyo County is dying; it’s been dying for a long time,” he said. “All we have is recreation, and we need to promote recreation, whether it’s rock climbing or ATV’ing. I don’t see the skyfall for this program.”
Apprixmately 50 people made public comment.
Of the seven trails being voted on at press time, five were located in Bishop, with two each emanating from Brown’s Town and the Pleasant Valley Campground and one from Britt’s Diesel.
There was one trail out of Independence (Independence Inn).
The 7th was in Lone Pine, beginning at the Boulder Creek RV Park.
An 8th route located in Aberdeen will be considered at a later date. It is expected to be shortened and approved.