By Avital Aboody
Many of the scenic trails winding through San Diego’s canyons are the unintended consequences of a San Diego infrastructure policy that made it possible to transform sewer line access paths into popular nature walks.
On a recent afternoon, Eric Bowlby, executive director of the non-profit organization San Diego Canyonlands, and Jason Allen, senior ranger with the City of San Diego Open Space Division, strolled along one such path parallel to Interstate 15 at the southern end of Juniper Canyon. They took turns identifying native and invasive plant species and praising each other’s tireless work to restore 3500 acres of open space in forty canyons throughout San Diego.
Despite the fact that the area has been dedicated as protected open space, the health of the local ecology and maintenance of the trail system is heavily dependent on limited city resources and the hard work of a small army of conservationists and volunteers.
The partnership between the City of San Diego and Canyonlands is a complicated one because it is both mutually beneficial and also prone to debate and negotiations over the competing uses of infrastructure, development, and habitat for wildlife.
Given that scientists regard the greater San Diego area as a conservation “hotspot” because of the wide variety of threatened and endangered species that reside there, Bowlby says that we could do better” to protect and restore the habitat.
For example, securing permits for needed improvements, is cumbersome he says, even though the restoration and rehabilitation of dozens of canyons will help to safeguard endangered habitats and filter pollutants out of urban storm water heading toward the coast.
These canyons remain wildlife strongholds where numerous species including coyotes, rabbits, western fence lizards and the federally endangered California gnatcatcher song bird flourish. They are also crisscrossed with utility easements and sewer lines. Also storm water, now funneled through the canyons in ever-greater volume and velocity, is causing severe erosion of the canyon streams.
In the 1990s, delayed maintenance resulted in clogged and leaking sewer lines, and the threat of maintenance roads being built in the canyons spurred an ongoing campaign by the Sierra Club to protect canyons throughout the City. San Diego Canyonlands was formed in 2008 to continue the work of forming “Friends Of” groups for neighborhood canyons all over the City and raising money to support habitat restoration and trail projects.
Attaining a permit to build a trail or restore wetlands says Bowlby, can be very time consuming. In 2012, Canyonlands received funding from the California Strategic Growth Council to restore 14 acres of habitat and build a 5-mile loop trail connecting four canyons in City Heights, a project they have been planning since 2009. Bowlby said the habitat restoration is almost complete but he and the City are still working on the required grading permit for the trail building.
As part of an effort to cut through red tape, Canyonlands is working with the City of San Diego Park & Recreation and Development Services Departments to prepare an efficient permit process for canyon restoration and enhancements. “Last year the Mayor’s office allocated $52,000 to support a ‘Master Permit’ for canyon rehabilitation projects”, said Bowlby. “The timing on this Master Permit is perfect.” he added enthusiastically, “the California Coastal Conservancy also awarded a $300,000 grant to us last year for planning trails and enhancements in twelve more urban canyons!”
Each of them veterans of the canyon restoration movement in their own right, Allen and Bowlby are in this work for the long haul. Although they remain focused on the long-term plan, they still make time to stop and smell the native coastal sagebrush and uproot some invasive crown daisy in Juniper Canyon.