By Karen Brainard
Neighbors of the Cedar Creek Falls Trailhead in San Diego Country Estates told forest service officials Wednesday that traffic from hikers was again increasing on their residential streets.
The 75-permit-per-day system for the trail was working, many said, asking why the forest service increased that number to 91 before the “spring spike” occurred.
Cindy Venolia said residents fear the forest service will raise the maximum permit use even more.
“Don’t ruin it again. Work with us. Keep it at 75,” she told Joan Friedlander, Palomar District ranger, and Bjorn Fredrickson, Palomar District recreation and lands officer. The two hosted an open house at the trailhead April 23 to answer residents’ questions and address concerns.
Steve Venolia said he requested a county traffic study that showed 220 cars at the trailhead on a recent Sunday.
While residents complained about how the trailhead has affected their lives and decreased property values, the forest service officials noted that the federally-owned forest land is for public use.
“We have to have pretty good reasons to turn the broad public from the site,” said Fredrickson.
In spring 2011, Cleveland National Forest improved the trail to Cedar Creek Falls and opened the trailhead at the end of Thornbush Road in the Estates to the public. That brought throngs of people, many unprepared for the strenuous six-mile hike with an 800-foot elevation change and hot temperatures. Residents complained of excessive traffic, speeding and overflow parking in their neighborhood, and people partying and littering. Emergency rescues increased and after a teenager fell to his death from a rocky cliff in July 2011, the forest service closed the trail to develop a system to better manage it.
The trail was reopened in April 2013 with hikers required to purchase a $6 visitor permit to trek down to the falls. The cap was set at 75 visitor use permits per day with one permit allowing up to five people.
According to forest service statistics, the permit ceiling of 75 per day was reached seven days last year. This year, from April 5 to 20, the average number of permits issued per day was 17.3, and on Saturdays the average was 41.9. There were two days in that timeframe that the maximum 91 permits were issued.
If Ramona has a wet year, that would lead to water running more frequently at the falls and the permit cap would consistently be reached, said resident Mark Pack.
On a quarterly basis the forest service will determine whether to adjust the permit number based on monitoring of environmental impacts, according to officials. Friedlander said the adjustment is made at a higher level, but she has the authority to override it.
Residents asked Friedlander if she would meet with neighbors before raising the cap again, but the ranger said she cannot. They also asked if she would close the trail during red flag warnings, noting that the worst fire in state history — the Cedar Creek Fire — started in that area. Friedlander said it is very challenging to order a closing.
“I hear and understand your pain,” she said. “The truth is there’s risk across the entire forest.”
Also attending the outdoor meeting were Lt. Hank Turner of the sheriff’s Ramona station and Michael Harrison, deputy chief of staff for Congressman Duncan Hunter and a Ramona resident.
After hearing all the discussion, Harrison said he would follow up with the forest service on behalf of the congressman’s office.
“It seems like we solved a problem and we’re all getting away from the solution,” he said.
Neighbors of the trailhead have welcomed volunteer trailhead hosts who live in an RV near the trailhead and work to educate the public, check on permits and keep the area clean.
Jacquelyn Rochelle and Sandra Grace from Texas are trailhead hosts for six months. They set up camp the weekend the permits reached maximum.
“The biggest impact is having these hosts here monitoring people going in,” said Pattie Warnick, who lives in the neighborhood. “Things are so much better than a year ago.”
“We love it,” said Rochelle. “Everyone we met out here is very nice. Met a lot of people from around the world.”
More enforcement is along the trail with rangers sporadically monitoring it, and a ranger is at the falls on weekends and holidays, said Fredrickson.
Rochelle said senior volunteers check the trailhead almost every day.
According to Ramona Fire Department/Cal Fire, Station 81 has responded to two rescues at the trail during April with one being heat-related and the other involving a fall.