High above Santa Cruz, Brian Largay envisions the county's next public open space park: 38 miles of trails–including 22 miles of singletrack built specifically for mountain bikes–weaving under a dense canopy of old-growth and young redwood, oak and pine trees and crossing creeks and streams inhabited by rare coho salmon and steelhead trout. From the park's highest point, at 2,600 feet above sea level, views stretch to the Pacific Ocean on one side and the ridges of the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains on the other.
For Largay, director of conservation for the Land Trust of Santa Cruz, this is not a pipe dream, but the result of five years of legwork finally coming into clear view with funding, public support and a timeline behind the vision.
"There was good, strong support all the way around for this plan," Largay says, as he steers the Land Trust's Land Cruiser along the rocky doubletrack inside the gated property, known as San Vicente Redwoods.
The vision began back in 2011 when the Land Trust and four other local conservation groups–the Sempervirens Fund, Peninsula Open Space Trust, The Nature Conservancy and Save the Redwoods League–pooled resources with the county and state to purchase the 8,532-acre parcel for $30 million. At the time, it was the largest private holding in the county, and was owned by CEMEX, a multi-national corporation that had acquired it when it purchased the neighboring Davenport cement plant in 2005. The 13-square-mile property is also the largest, intact Redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains, even though it's been clearcut and quarried for limestone in the past. It's an important missing link in a future plan by Sempervirens to create a "Great Park" that would preserve some 138,000 acres of redwood forest from the skyline to the sea in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Public access is a significant part of the longterm goal for the property, alongside timber harvesting (to pay for management of the park), stream preservation and habitat restoration–the property is home to peregrine falcons, marbled murrelets and is an important mountain lion denning zone, however, there will be little chance of crossing paths with one of the elusive cats.
"We give nice big berths around the mountain lion dens and the amazing thing is we can have 38 miles of trails and even if you put 300-foot buffers around those trails you still only affect 10 percent of the property because it's such a massive place," Largay says.
As of now public access will consist of trailhead facilities, such as parking and restrooms, and a trail network that's open to hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers–all trails will be open to hikers, while equestrians and mountain bikers will have specifically designated trails. Camping will be prohibited due to wildfire concerns, as will motorized recreation. To help it decide on appropriate uses, the Land Trust gathered 2,300 surveys and interviewed 190 people most likely to be affected by the plan. Some 90 percent agreed that mountain biking would be a reasonable use of the land, a somewhat surprising number given past contention between the two-wheeled sect and other trail user groups.
"There has been a history of conflict and frustration around bicycling in Santa Cruz County," Largay says. "My perception is that is sunsetting one retirement at a time. Mountain biking has so permeated the culture here it's hard to hold it against people for riding a bike."
The mountain-bike trails, as designed by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship with input from the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz club, will be mellow in terms of steepness, falling at an angle between 5 to 7 percent, but can be as technical as trail builders see fit. The idea will be to have trails range in difficulty, with the easier trails located closest to the parking area. The initial design phase was paid for with $65,000 that was funded by a consortium of local industry members including Santa Cruz Bicycles, Fox Shox, Ibis Cycles, Specialized, Praxis Works, Bell, Giro, Blackburn, X-Fusion, Ow Properties and Dessau LLC.
Santa Cruz recently chipped in a hefty $500,000, which was matched by an anonymous donor, to help fund the building stage. The Land Trust has a fundraising goal of $7 million to complete this project and two unrelated projects, about half of which it's already raised. San Vicente Redwoods is about 30 minutes from Santa Cruz's headquarters, and the trail project has become a passion project for the brand, said Don Palermini, Santa Cruz's North American marketing manager.
"This felt like a really good fit for us given the proximity and the fact that we use a lot of the trails here–you can grab a bike in our showroom and go into Wilder Ranch and demo it, our engineers go out and test out in the woods. We do feel a bit of responsibility goes along with that so we spearheaded that group that raised the initial $65,000 for the trail plan," he said.
"Money's a big part of it, but we made it our mission to be a big part of this project that sort of goes to both that sense of responsibility that we feel and we all live here and we want to make a great place for our families. Having open spaces that are open to bikes and hikers and horses is a pretty important thing for us."
The Land Trust is submitting for permits this summer, and if all goes well, trail building will start next year with full build-out completed in 2020. And this could just be the beginning. The BLM is in the midst of developing a trail plan for a 5,600-acre piece of property it owns that sits between San Vicente Redwoods and the ocean. Largay hopes to one day see a skyline trail that leads from San Vicente all the way to the water, with a bike-path connection back into Santa Cruz.
Even if all that happens, there are still lingering questions about the future of San Vincente. Largay figures the operating budget will run between $400,000 and $500,000 annually, which the nonprofit owners have accounted for in a five-year management plan. The goal will be to eventually turn the property over the California State Parks or, if that entity doesn't want to take on the responsibility, perhaps a private timber company.
To read more about the project, go to www.LandTrustSantaCruz.org.