Finding a Different Path
“So I promise that I’m not going to build a trail that has landslides.” – Montecito Trails Foundation representative to CRAHTAC, 11/14/22
How soon promises are broken…
We can’t predict when weather will cause damage to trails, but thanks to highly trained agency staff such as geologists, we are given insight to the types of locations that are best suited for trails versus ones that are going to be susceptible to landslides and stability issues. Such is the case with the McMenemy Trail relocation project, which was approved by the Santa Barbara County Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Committee (CRAHTAC) in November of 2022. CRAHTAC and the many others that have now seen the email from the USFS Geologist were warned specifically, “The proposed trail is located along a mid-slope, on both sides of the drainage with potential initiation of landslides impacting the trail as a result a very wet winter/saturated hillside and/or seismic shaking.” Also noted in the Geologist’s email, the current McMenemy Trail location has no geological hazards and is stable. This Geologist’s email was sent to CRAHTAC twice, first in September 2022, then again in November 2022.
The Geologist was absolutely correct and in January of 2023, less than eight weeks after the McMenemy reroute was approved by CRAHTAC, heavy rains caused numerous major landslides along the reroute, destabilizing the hillside and creating safety issues for the proposed trail. Since then, I have learned that a second, newer reroute of McMenemy Trail has been initiated, along a different route than was approved by CRAHTAC in 11/14/22. This new reroute, first identified in June of 2023, passes along the base of one active slide and through another major active slide. The area of the June 2023 reroute passes through the head or uppermost part of the canyon and traverses even steeper hillsides, which could be even more susceptible to landslides in the future and given the large amount of boulders present on the surface of these hillsides, rock fall may also be an issue in this area as well.
It should be noted that the current McMenemy Trail in the vicinity of switchbacks suffered no significant damage from the January 2023 rains and this entire section of trail is completely safe and stable and is in the best condition it has been in for years. Just prior to the storm, major repairs were made on the current McMenemy Trail removing rutted areas, widening areas when possible, and making the trail more sustainable during heavy downpours. These improvements have led to the return of horseback riders to this trail, which has not been possible in years past due to neglected trail conditions.
That being said, the main reason given publicly to relocate McMenemy Trail to the canyon a short distance to the north was due to “shortcutting” of switchbacks along the McMenemy Trail. Shortcutting or cutting in layman’s terms is veering off trail and creating unofficial trails up and down the hillsides. This former switchback “cutting” problem was completely eradicated this past winter by blocking the unofficial paths and full regrowth of a hillsides formerly shortcut has occurred with zero erosion issues or even a trace exists that this problem ever occurred. So, I will be the first to ask the question, “Why is this relocation project still moving forward?” I recently asked both the County of Santa Barbara and USFS if the reroute was still going ahead and got the same answer from both agencies that this reroute was still in the works in one stage or another.
A better question could have been, “Why is the McMenemy Trail reroute still moving forward after the January 2023 storms caused five landslides on the hillsides of the canyon where the proposed trail was set to pass as well as leaving one ravine highly eroded?” These landslides prove that a high degree of instability on hillsides of the proposed reroute exists and should be viewed as a preview of what is to come if the reroute is completed as proposed. These active landslide problems are in addition to other areas of instability described by the USFS Geologist which included: two dormant landslides or as described by the Geologist “head scarps” and one area of undercutting that, as he described following heavy flows, “might be a challenge to keep stable.” It is a fact that the canyon where McMenemy Trail will be relocated has no route that currently does not contain major storm damage or will be prone to it.
As we are all well aware, in January of 2023 the Santa Barbara Front Country Trails System and beyond received an unprecedented amount of rainfall and suffered catastrophic trail damage in the form of landslides, washouts, and rock fall amongst other types of stability issues. Repairs on many areas are ongoing and will take months if not years to complete, and having participated in much of the repair process thus far, I can tell you that many of these areas will need to be monitored for years to come as the hillsides remain very unstable. Ideally in trail planning one wants to keep a trail as far as possible from landslides and other stability issues. Historically speaking in the Santa Barbara region, never has a trail been moved from a stable, safe location without any damage to a location riddled with landslides. I would be willing to bet that no trail in any location in the world has ever been moved from a stable hillside to one that contains active landslides. Sometimes it’s good to be the first at something… this is not one of those cases.
The Montecito Trails Foundation promised the CRAHTAC and the public they were “not going to build a trail that has landslides,” at the November 2022 meeting yet the project is still underway (24:07 of the uploaded CRAHTAC meeting video). It is my experience that once a landslide has begun it is extremely difficult to stop it from sliding again and again. The West Fork of Cold Spring Trail landslide is a prime example of this and even after constructing a major support wall the slide continues to plague this location year after year.
As a member of the trail-using community, we have come to believe that the best interests related to our trails are being protected night and day by committees such as the County of Santa Barbara appointed CRAHTAC. After observing this process unfold over the past year plus and learning the background of this relocation, I have come to learn this relocation is not in the public’s best interest. CRAHTAC has not represented the public at large, as one of its own appointed members initiated the relocation of McMenemy Trail some two years ago, never disclosing publicly the move was underway and quite certainly violating rules by which this committee is supposed to uphold. It wasn’t until last year that the public was first made aware that a relocation of McMenemy Trail was underway once the Montecito Trails Foundation took lead of the relocation project. We the public should have a say in how a trail is managed and if any significant changes were to occur, we would be able to participate fully.
My warning to the thousands of people you represent in the trail-user community who still believe the public’s best interest are at the forefront, think again! The future of our trail system is in jeopardy and until major changes have been made to CRAHTAC, trails that our forefathers worked so hard to establish are at risk! It would appear that anyone who has any reason for relocating a trail may do so, no matter how flimsy the reasoning or who it benefits. The decision made by CRAHTAC in November of 2022 is a prime example; it put the needs of one organization over the trail-using population as a whole. My hope is that this relocation will be broken down and studied to learn from it for future generations to prevent this from ever happening again.