The other day I got a letter explaining that EBRPD staff has reversed it’s decision to consider opening Vollmer Peak Trail in Tilden Park. BTCEB submitted Vollmer Peak and an access trail in Briones Park for multi-use conversion to EBATC under the Trail Use Change Checklist Program. Both trails where approved by the EBATC and forwarded onto EBRPD earlier this summer. Originally EBRPD had determined both trails were worthy of further review. However in the last week the District reversed course “because there is a high potential for Alameda whipsnake to occur on the Vollmer Peak Trail, putting bicycles on this trail could increase the potential of bicycles running them over.”
I’m think, WHAT? First off, let me make it clear that I’m a “greenie”. I think the Endangered Species Act is good policy. I also think the idea of Critical Habitat (CH) Designation makes sense. But that idea that bikes represent a greater danger to Alameda whipsnakes than do hikers, runners, dog walkers (and their dogs), equestrians, or any other user is just down right stupid.
First off the Fish and Wildlife Service designated six units as critical habitat for the Alameda whipsnake. Unit 1, which includes Tilden Park, is bordered approximately by State Highway 4 and the cities of Pinole, Hercules, and Martinez to the north; by State Highway 24 and the City of Orinda Village to the south; Interstate 80 and the cities of Berkeley, El Cerrito, and Richmond, to the west; and Interstate 680 and the City of Pleasant Hill to the east. The South end of Unit 1 includes approximately 8,108 ac of EBRPD lands which includes Tilden and Wildcat Regional Parks. So basically anytime you’re riding your bike in this area you’re ridding in CH for Alameda whipsnakes.
Currently bikes riding the existing loop in Tilden must exit onto the paved Grizzly Peak Blvd and South park drive. If you’re riding your bike in Tilden, why does it matter if you’re on Vollmer Peak Trail or Grizzly Peak Blvd? The chances of running over a snake are the same. Simply opening up an existing trail does not change the number of bikes, it only changes the route one takes while riding. Two tires riding down trail A are the same as two tires riding down trail B.
But that’s not the most egregious nature of the District’s mistake. The real dumb idea is that mountain biking represents a greater danger to Alameda whipsnakes than do hikers, runners, dog walkers (and their dogs), equestrians, or any other user.
If one reads the actual ruling “Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Designation of Critical Habitat for the Alameda Whipsnake; Final Rule” on page 58197 (that’s one big document) you’ll find the “Jeopardy Standard”. This describes activities that may destroy or adversely modify critical habitat.
At this point it’s important to point out that the designation of critical habitat is often misunderstood and there are significant limitations on the regulatory effect of DH designation. Basically CH primarily affects federal actions or if there is a “Federal nexus” (i.e. situations in which a federal agency is involved). For example, a landowner undertaking a project on private land that involves no federal funding or permits would not be affected. So many of the ruling only effects federal agencies and when we talk about “activities that may destroy or adversely modify critical habitat” this actual is in reference to how a Federal agency should act. But having stated that, I’m all for the idea of CH, so lets just assume that we should all work for the greatest level of protection and use the well-intentioned rules that a federal agency would follow.
So back to the activities that may destroy or adversely modify critical habitat. In brief they are;
(1) Actions that would reduce the total amount of shrub/scrub, oak woodland, or grassland communities.
(2) Actions that would significantly modify the vegetation mosaic pattern.
(3) Actions that would result in complete loss of habitat or would impede snake movement by forming partial or complete barriers through or between habitat areas.
4) Actions that would significantly alter or modify the functioning of rock lands, talus, or small mammal burrows as Alameda whipsnake refugium or prey production.
(5) Actions that would result in degraded chaparral scrub or oak woodland communities.
(6) Actions that result in a discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States by the Army Corps under section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
You might notice that riding ones bike on a established trail is not listed.
Further more one can read “Special Management Considerations or Protections” EBRPD should be undertaking to conserve the snake. The ruling states (page 58192) “The greatest threat to whipsnakes in all six critical habitat units is continued urban development…”
“Second, fragmentation and destruction of features essential to the conservation of the subspecies…”
“Third, the features essential to the conservation of the subspecies are threatened directly and indirectly by the effects of fire suppression.”
Fourth “Inappropriate grazing practices, such as overgrazing, may threaten the Alameda whipsnake.”
Fifth “In habitat areas that are not urbanized, construction and use of paved and unpaved roads and trails, and associated recreational activities (e.g., on- and off-road motorized and non-motorized vehicles, camping, hiking, horseback riding) may result in both losses of habitat and direct mortality of Alameda whipsnakes… ”
and “Finally, Alameda whipsnakes are subject to increased predatory pressure from introduced species, such as rats (Rattus spp.), feral pigs (Sus scrofa), and feral and domestic cats (Felis domestica) and dogs (Canis familiaris).”
So in a nut shell, increased urbanization (building), fire suppression, inappropriate grazing, recreational activities from all users, none native animals, and domestic cats and dogs. Now I know that the District allows grazing in Wildcat Canyon, does not engage in controlled burns in Tilden, and allows hikers, equestrians, and dogs on Vollmer Peak Trail. Why is that other users and activities that may have equal or greater adverse impacts are OK, but riding a bike is unacceptable?
I’m all for protecting the Alameda whipsnake and willing to accept recreational limitations to insure it’s saftey. But CH should not be used as an excuse to keep bikes off trails because others don’t want to share. If the Vollmer Peak Trail is unable to handle additional users, then the District should look into reducing access for other park users so that ALL user have EQUAL access, instead of systematically banning cyclists. The District should reevaluate it’s decision using a more equitable criteria on how trail access will be determined in order to protect listed species.