Closing down nature Shutting trails and roads in Big Sur a tough call

| Photo by Anneliese Agren

| BIG SUR

By Kate Woods Novoa

Like many popular remote communities that serve as gateways to wilderness areas, Big Sur residents feel the strain of people who need a natural experience after being cooped up in their homes during the pandemic.

So the decision last week by the U.S. Forest Service to shut down trails and roads in the Los Padres National Park stirred up an outcry on social media.

The order to shut it down came April 16 and is set to expire on June 1 unless reissued. On April 17, the USFS, the local California Highway Patrol and a sheriff’s deputy put out signs, cones and closure notices for the trailheads and roads.

Only hours after putting up the sign and cones at the bottom of Willow Creek, someone came along and tossed all of them into the poison oak, presumably to make retrieval more difficult.

The next day law enforcement was busy on all the roads and trailheads, ticketing for violation of the forest closure order. According to the federal code, violations of the order are punishable by fines of up to $5,000 per person (or $10,000 for an organization) and/or imprisonment for up to six months.

By the way, Plaskett Ridge Road, located between the communities of Lucia and Gorda on the South Coast, was inadvertently left off the closure order, possibly because a pre-WWII map was used to draw up the order. Once Plaskett Ridge is added to the order, as district ranger Tim Short assured me it would be. On Saturday night, after a sweep by law enforcement, my son was able to count 20 vehicles camping on the ridge below us. Sunday night, there were none.

By Monday most campers had cleared out, but those that had not were informed by residents of the law enforcement sweep and the fines that could be imposed.

It’s not the first time closure orders have been called in the Big Sur area, but in the past they’re the result of fires or droughts. This one is different. It was closed because of a pandemic.

The decision to shut down public lands for health and safety reasons is not an easy call. The order last week from the Monterey Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest was issued because too many people were violating county and state shelter-in-place orders. Too many people were on the roads; too many people were on the trails.

Forest service rangers also decided to close access because all of the other state, federal and private campgrounds and beaches in the area (with the exception of a single private campground) were closed in March. All Army Corps of Engineer campgrounds and recreation areas were also closed nationwide on March 20.

By Monday most campers had cleared out, but those that had not were informed by residents of the law enforcement sweep and the fines that could be imposed.

One resident who tried to get up Nacimiento Road on Sunday night was told by the CHP that she needed a road permit, a requirement included in the regional office order, which set off another round of confusion. That issue has since been resolved, so that now local residents only need to show an ID card and proof of residency. Most of us have been through this sort of thing before during fires.

The corrected closure order was signed on Monday and all signs and cones were back in place. Caltrans has parked an electrical sign board in San Simeon that reads:

USFS LANDS CLOSED

PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING

Highway One is far from deserted. I have been informed by contacts and friends that it is still extremely busy. In fact, Monday night, two vehicles stopped near Partington Ridge and decided to have a campfire on the side of the road. Our local volunteer fire department was immediately notified.

Big Sur is not alone. Other “gateway communities” to national treasures are pushing back to protect both residents and resources. For instance, the Southeast Utah Health Department last month ordered the closure of campgrounds and lodging facilities around Moab, the gateway to Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

Health officials say they were concerned that visitors with COVID-19 would tax the community’s health-care system.

According to The Washington Post in a travel story three weeks ago, “stir-crazy” families were considering road trips to their favorite public lands for some social distancing in the backcountry. “Hordes of people have been spotted everywhere from California’s Point Reyes National Seashore to Maine’s Acadia National Park,” said The Post.

Campendium, a website for RVers, Van Lifers, and campers, has an extensive list of all the closed national parks, military campgrounds, private campgrounds and state parks.

Monterey County issued its shelter-in-place order effective March 18. It issued an additional order with more restrictions on April 3. Many people countywide were not happy to see their recreational opportunities dwindle, along with other restrictions.

Even California’s tourism website supports the closure of many of the top tourist destinations. According to its website, visitcalifornia.com, the state’s remote outdoor destinations are not equipped with the health-care facilities to handle an influx of visitors — and potential patients.

Indeed, ignoring the order because one doesn’t agree with it puts small rural communities in danger. This is a selfish position to take. People who violate the shelter-in-place orders are taking the very real chance that at least one member of the group may be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 and can infect someone else.

Most of us have honored the stay at home order. It has not been any easier for those of us who live in Big Sur or Moab or any small rural community than it has been for others. I try to remember the two years that Anne Frank and her family hid out with two other families in order to survive the German occupation of Amsterdam. Our isolation is much easier as we are all connected with the world and each other through technology. And we can choose how connected that is.

It is up to each of us to protect ourselves and our community and the only way is with social distancing, with masks and hand washing, and with conscious efforts to comply. No, it is not easy, but we know we can do it, because most of us are.

I saw a photograph of a wonderful sign on social media which brought our sacrifices into sharp focus: “And then the whole world walked inside and shut their doors and said, We will stop it all, EVERYTHING. To protect our weaker ones. Our sicker ones. Our older ones. And nothing. NOTHING. In the history of humankind ever felt more like love than this.”

Letter: Big Sur story ‘informative and wise.’

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Kate Woods Novoa

About Kate Woods Novoa

Since 1985, Kate Woods Novoa has lived in Big Sur, working as a public defender for Monterey County. She started the bigsurkate blog (https://bigsurkate.blog) during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.