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What's next for the Wilderness Park?

One group says 1.4 million people use the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park each year; the other thinks 900,000 is more accurate. Either way, something needs to be done.

The Claremont Hills Wilderness Park Master Plan project was launched in January 2014 and by the looks of things, it couldn’t come fast enough. The city-owned 2,023-acre preserve, with its 20 miles of fire roads and single-path trails extending deep into the hills and canyons of the San Gabriel foothills, continues to attract a mountain of visitors, creating the challenge of finding a balance between resource protection and park use.

Pedestrian and vehicular safety, overuse of the park as well as parking and neighborhood spillover issues have been raised at numerous city council meetings, resulting in the recent adoption of a moratorium on further parking restrictions until the Wilderness Park Master Plan has been adopted. A target date for adoption is set for January 2015.

Although parking issues remain at the forefront of residents’ concerns, the increasing number of Wilderness Park visitors and their passive recreational use of the park continue to present additional issues for Claremonters.

Alta Planning + Design

In October 2012, the city council unanimously awarded a $38,845 contract to Alta Planning + Design to conduct the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park Visitor Use Census Report. The report was designed to capture a representative sample of visitor use of trails as well as visitor parking in and around the Wilderness Park.

In December 2012 and again in June 2013, Alta volunteers spent a total of 12 hours at six entrances, counting visitors on foot and on bicycle as they exited the Wilderness Park. At the same time, a parking census was also conducted at park trailheads to determine parking availability during peak hours.

In addition, an extrapolation was calculated to determine estimates of annual visitor activity, producing an estimate of approximately 1.4 million guests a year—a number comparable to the annual visitors to the Los Angeles Zoo and Legoland in Carlsbad.

In their summary findings, Alta concluded that 89 percent of visitors were pedestrians, 11 percent of visitors were bicyclists and the highest level of visitor activity was concentrated at Mills Avenue.

Dean McHenry, who volunteered for a study date last June, doesn’t necessarily agree with Alta’s calculations.

“Those figures seem very much inflated. I participated in one study at the Pomello Drive entrance. I thought they had some problems,” Mr. McHenry said. “On the maps, they were counting people going both ways on the trail. The numbers seem off.”

The visitor census report, compiled by Alta and obtained by the COURIER, was received by the city only in draft form. Shortly after its submission, the city rejected Alta’s annual projection of 1.4 million park-users, citing concerns with the modeling and extrapolation methods. As a result, city staff cut ties with Alta, electing to use only the raw data—the park visitor counts—while dismissing the remaining estimations.

The city eventually closed out its contract with Alta, paying $19,143.70 of the original $38,845 contract. What followed was a peer review by MIG Consulting, the company contracted by the city in December 2013 for $242,275 to complete the Wilderness Park’s Master Plan project.

Following MIG’s review of the data provided by Alta, the number of estimated yearly visitors to the park differed significantly between the two companies.

“Alta’s Visitor Census Report provided accurate usage figures for specific points in time,” Assistant City Manager Colin Tudor said. “Additional review and more comprehensive modeling by MIG refined the data and, based on the current data, the estimated number of visitors is 850,000 to 900,000 visitors per year.”

By comparison, Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas, which offers boating, horseback riding and other amenities, reported 490,713 visitors in 2013. Bonelli charges $10 per vehicle, with additional fees for boating and activities.

According to Mr. Tudor, additional visitor counts by MIG are being performed at Claremont’s Wilderness park over the next couple of months, which will allow the numbers to be further refined.


MIG Surveys

MIG Consultants has been given the daunting task of completing a comprehensive master plan for the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park. The goal is to develop a blueprint to manage the park that will balance environmental preservation, recreational needs, neighborhood impacts and funding considerations for years to come. 

With the assistance of numerous volunteers, MIG conducted its own exit surveys, which began on May 5 and will continue on selected dates through mid-July. Two types of information are being gathered by MIG’s Visitor Intercept Survey: a count of visitors exiting the park and a written questionnaire in which individuals report on their experience in the park and make suggestions for improvements.

The results of the survey will be posted on the city’s website and presented to the Master Plan’s Technical Advisory Committee as well as the community at meetings in late summer/early fall.


Bigger Numbers, Bigger Problems

It wasn’t long ago that the Wilderness Park was a haven of solace for park enthusiasts, a place where you could take your horse for a morning ride among the wildflowers or enjoy a quiet, solitary walk to reconnect with nature. In recent years, however, the number of park visitors has skyrocketed, creating a tremendous impact not only on the surrounding residential communities but also to the park’s natural environment.

Paul Faulsitch, professor of environmental studies at Pitzer College, has already seen the effects the large numbers of people are having on the park’s ecology and is concerned about the repercussions as the numbers continue to climb.

“Unfortunately, there’s no specific study that tells us what a good carrying capacity for visitors should be,” Mr. Faulsitch explained. “We have to look elsewhere to get a sense of what happens when numbers increase. All it takes is casual erosion, trash, human feces and lots of traffic to have significant impact on the park. We do need a master plan, but we mustn’t stop there and assume it’s all going to be fine. We need longitudinal studies that document the long-term effects.”

A healthy ecosystem has a full range of predators and prey to sustain an environment that’s kept in natural balance. According to Mr. Faulsitch, the Wilderness Park is already experiencing an imbalance with larger animals, like cougars and bears, being pushed farther up the hillsides and mule deer becoming more docile and prevalent in the lower areas.

“We’re seeing an overabundance of deer in the park because they are not being hunted and they’re not wary of people,” he said. “The deer are essentially using humans as shields against their predators. Even with the kind of casual data I’m gathering, we’re already seeing the impact of people, as the larger animals stay away from the areas heavy with human traffic.”

The animals aren’t the only ones seeking higher ground in the presence of swelling visitor park occupancy. According to Councilman Sam Pedroza, bicyclists who once enjoyed free reign of the park are finding themselves limited of open space and forced to seek alternative locations to ride.

“I’ve talked to the bike riders who say that riding up there used to be really fun but now, there are just too many people,” Mr. Pedroza said. “They go to Marshall Canyon now so, to some extent, the capacity issues are managing themselves to some degree. I don’t want to downplay that their impacts aren’t significant. A lot of the users are also people that don’t have access to gyms and this is accessible to them.”


Master Plan Promises

While the purpose of the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park Master Plan is to provide a cohesive review and guidelines for managing the park, no one is in denial about how difficult it will be to find a feasible solution to the increasing visitors and the problems that appear to come with them.

“Nobody has any real-world experience with this specific situation,” Councilman Corey Calaycay said. “When you have this kind of demand, even the ‘enviros’ have to admit it’s having an impact on the surroundings. It’s going to take some creative thinking and we have to tweak a few things as we go along.”

First steps to developing the master plan included creating a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), whose members were appointed by the mayor. The TAC was to be comprised of 11 community members representing neighborhoods, conservation groups, recreation and open space users, and the community at large. Some residents have been critical of the composition of the group.

“There are no plant or wildlife experts, no geologists, no trail development experts, no county fire department personnel, almost none representing users residing outside Claremont,” Mr. McHenry noted in a viewpoint published in the COURIER.

“In fact, its composition makes it more of a ‘political’ action committee than a ‘technical’ one—specifically, individuals more likely to weigh the concerns of those who live near the park rather than to consider the concerns of all park users and other community members.”

While the city has been scrambling to put band-aids on some of the symptoms associated with heavy park usage by enforcing park hours, limiting street parking and installing parking meters, residents are becoming less and less optimistic about potential solutions for the ongoing and future issues with the Wilderness Park.

 “I’m certainly not as hopeful as I was before,” says Mr. McHenry. “So far, I don’t see any good ideas coming out of it that we could mull over. Many of us are worried about what’s to come.”

—Angela Bailey


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