By LIZ DOROSKI
[Editor’s note: This article will appear in the fall issue of the MTRP newsletter, mailed to contributors to the MTRP Foundation. For information about supporting Mission Trails, visit www.mtrp.org.]
The City of San Diego manages 47,000 acres of preserve and conserved lands, and the Parks and Recreation Department manages 28,000 acres of this land, which includes Mission Trails Regional Park (MTRP). Incredibly, only Anchorage, Alaska manages more city park acreage in the United States than does the City of San Diego.
Open space parks are differentiated from developed parks (Balboa Park, community parks) in that they are left in their natural state as a haven for our native wildlife and vegetation, and these spaces give local scientists the opportunity to go into the field to study our highly diverse flora and fauna. Additionally, our open space parks provide a much-needed escape into the natural world that many of us crave and enjoy.
With the closure of many of our public spaces (gyms, swimming pools, etc.) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we wondered if more local residents are using MTRP since it re-opened and wanted to explore the pros and cons of this change in usership. We spoke with Mark Berninger, the city’s Natural Resource Manager in the Parks and Recreation Department’s Open Space Division, who shared some hard data, along with anecdotal evidence, regarding changes in park usership since the pandemic. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation with Mark.
Is there any data showing how many people use MTRP?
We have collected uninterrupted data for two and a half years on four trails leading up to Cowles Mountain (Cowles Staging Area Trail, Barker Way Trail, Mesa Rim Trail, and Big Rock Trailhead) by far the most popular hike in MTRP. In July 2020, 45,000 users climbed the main trail, and another 20,000 used the three other trails. That’s a 20% increase from July 2019, when 36,000 people climbed the main trail. This data lets us extrapolate public use across all our parks and have estimated that city open space parks — not including developed parks — received 2.2 million visitors in 2019, more than the San Diego Zoo, Padres and Chargers games (combined), and several national parks.
That really speaks to the need of people wanting and needing nature and wild. Do you have any information on who these new park users are?
We talked to rangers who believe most are active adults whose gyms and yoga studios are closed, so they go to the open space preserves to work out, rather than to enjoy and appreciate wildlife. There are pros and cons to this change — on the one hand, new people are being exposed to outdoor parks, including lots of kids who would typically be indoors in day care or school but are now being exposed to nature and the outdoors at an earlier age and more frequently. The flipside is those who think of the trails as their personal gym many not know park rules or be aware of trail etiquette.
With our urban preserves, it’s about the space being for the animals and habitats, people’s use is a secondary benefit. The main benefit is to maintain rare and endangered habitats for plants and animals so they have a place to continue to exist.
How might better community understanding of park and trail rules be achieved?
Education will be most important. We see an opportunity to engage these new users and partner with MTRP to spread the word about trail etiquette. The parks need more rangers now more than ever, because there’s no better substitute for the personal engagement with ranger programs. These programs can sway people more than any sign. Ranger programs also teach kids at a young age to respect the environment. If I had my way, I’d have dozens more rangers that all they did was education.
During the park’s closure, it seems the City’s park rangers — including MTRP’s rangers —ended up having to do a lot of policing and encountered people upset that they couldn’t use the park.
Right, and all the rangers’ regular duties didn’t go away (monitoring and eradicating invasive species, etc.), so they had extra work while they enforced the lockdown.
Did you have any data of how wildlife changed during the lockdown?
During April, we were busy figuring out what we could and should study, and how, but before we were ready to begin, the parks reopened. We also study least tern nesting, and we wondered if they would come back while the beaches were closed. One day during the shutdown, I went to Ocean Beach Dog Beach and saw thousands of least terns, pelicans, and seagulls resting on the beach. It’s a wide flat open area where they could watch for predators and find their own prey. After it opened up again, all those birds were forced to move inland to the flood channel.
Did you get a chance to be at MTRP during the closure, and did you witness anything special?
I was at MTRP during the closure and had a cool encounter with a roadrunner in the East Elliot area while out monitoring the progress of San Diego Goldenstar, a native plant. I heard a male roadrunner cooing in the brush next to me and realized I was scaring lizards off the trail and into the brush, so he must’ve been snatching up lizards as I flushed them out. His call was so soft, that if someone were on the trail talking, I wouldn’t have heard it. You don’t hear roadrunners making noises, so that was really special. Saw a legless lizard, which are typically very secretive. Lots more snakes this spring too.
What else should the public know about the importance of our open spaces?
The lockdown gave us a chance to see how valuable these open spaces are to people. They got so upset when they closed. They felt it was their trail, their quiet time and exercise.
Open spaces are important to cultivating the next generation of conservationists by getting them in the parks early and developing programs for kids. What better way to be safe and socially distant than outdoor schools?
Advocacy matters the most with the people who approve our budgets. When I request funding to hire more rangers, equipment for trail maintenance, expanding programs, I frame it as asset protection for the city.
For development, the Multi-Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) is a tool for the city to say we’re setting aside these areas for preservation, and here are the rules for what you can do in the vicinity of these preserves. It allows our economy and development to move forward, and that benefits the city. Because of San Diego’s incredible biodiversity, we have upwards of 90 species covered under MSCP that are threatened, endangered, or special status.
We were the first city to have MSCP. We are a model for other cities on habitat conservation. We have the second largest urban preserve in the U.S. We started the vernal pool conservation plan. The city sees our native plants and animals as a major asset that needs protecting and is contingent on our management of these areas. We shall, we need to, and we will manage these areas.
— Liz Doroski is a Mission Trails Regional Park Foundation volunteer.