A federal agency that oversees the Santa Felicia Dam approved a plan to facilitate trail access from Lake Piru to the adjoining Sespe Wilderness in the southeastern corner of the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County. ForestWatch and other conservation and trails groups requested that the current fee – as high as $13 per day to park a vehicle at the trailhead – be reduced to levels consistent with other public land recreation areas in the region, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to take any action on that request before issuing its decision.
Early Trail Plan
The United Water Conservation District operates the Santa Felicia Dam, which was built on Piru Creek in the 1950s. The Santa Felicia Project area is surrounded on three sides by the Los Padres National Forest, and several public trailheads are located within the project area including the Potholes Trail and the Agua Blanca Trail. These trails eventually connect to one another in the Sespe Wilderness. This project area is also the southern terminus of the Condor Trail, a through-trail that spans the entire length of the Los Padres National Forest and which is currently under consideration by Congress for designation as a National Recreation Trail.
In 2008, FERC issued a new license to United Water for the Santa Felicia Project that require, among other things, that United Water develop a recreational trail plan for providing trail access to the east side of Lake Piru. The license stipulated that the trail plan should identify the location of the existing trail sections to be formalized along the east side of the lake, the location and route for developing a 1.5 mile link between Forest Service roads and other existing trails, and a schedule for completing the trail construction within 10 years.
On November 5, 2013, United Water released a Recreational Trail Plan for the Santa Felicia Project, indicating that a trail link on the east side of Lake Piru was no longer necessary and questioning the validity of this license condition. On March 24, 2014, FERC issued an order noting that “the need for trails still exists” and requesting additional information from United Water, including an explanation on the availability of alternative hiking opportunities at the Project within 90 days. This request was spurred by concerns raised by ForestWatch and other conservation and trails groups.
Subsequently, United Water requested a series of time extensions and released a revised draft Trails Plan incorporating additional information on December 30, 2015. ForestWatch submitted comments in February 2016 requesting several changes, which United Water filed its final Trails Plan with FERC on April 1, 2016. The final Trails Plan seeks to improve public access opportunities at the Pothole and Agua Blanca trails, including installation and maintenance of a trailhead parking lot, toilet facility, and signage; executing a permanent trail easement to the U.S. Forest Service; and a project schedule for permitting, environmental review, and consultation with the U.S. Forest Service and other stakeholders.
ForestWatch Formally Requests to Intervene
Due to the existing fees and other concerns, with support from a diverse group of other stakeholders including California Trout, Condor Trail Association, Friends of the River, Friends of the Santa Clara River, Keep the Sespe Wild Committee, Los Padres Forest Association, Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy, Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, and Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter, ForestWatch formally requested to intervene in the plan’s approval by requesting the following changes:
- The excessive entry fee be reduced or eliminated.
- The proposed trailhead parking lot be paved.
- The area be subject to a nighttime closure to reduce vandalism.
- Installation of permanent features such as the parking lot, signage, and toilets be postponed until the Forest Service completed an analysis of alternative trail routes, with the Forest Service’s preferred route being incorporated into the plan.
This motion gives ForestWatch legal standing to receive formal notices regarding the trail plan, the ability to request rehearings, and other legal standing in addition to requiring United Water to consult with ForestWatch during the implementation of the trail plan. ForestWatch was the only organization to intervene in this portion of the proceeding.
United Water Responds and FERC Approves Plan
United Water responded to this motion refusing to eliminate or even reduce the access fee, stating that the fees were necessary to cover the added expenses of facilitating public access to the Los Padres National Forest. However, implementing the Trails Plan – and the added expenses that would create – was a stipulation in the license issued to United Water by FERC in 2008. We maintain that it is unfair to the public to shoulder the burden of financing United Water’s obligations under its federal license, especially considering that the area has had public access since the 1920s, well before the construction of Lake Piru. United Water tried to make comparisons to entrance fees for various National Parks in California, including Kinds Canyon and Sequoia which charge $30 for entry. However, those entrance fees are valid for seven days. For an overnight backpacker to use the Potholes Trailhead managed by United Water, they would be charged $26 during “peak season”, which is nearly as much as the seven-day fee for entry into those national parks. Furthermore, Channel Islands National Park – the nearest national park to the Santa Felicia Project area – does not even charge an entrance fee.
The Forest Service is currently conducting their own surveys to determine the best alignment of the Pothole Trail, which will help guide the final location of the new trailhead. While the fees will not be eliminated, United Water has at least agreed to incorporate the Forest Service’s preferred Potholes Trail route into the plan, consider paving the parking lot during its environmental review phase of the project, consult with the Forest Service regarding nighttime closure, and postpone installation of permanent features until the Forest Service completes its analysis of alternative trail routes. The new FERC order approving the plan also requires that United Water include ForestWatch and other stakeholders in the implementation phase of the newly-approved trail plan. We will remain vigilant about ensuring that the plan is implemented with regard to protecting forest resources and public access, and we will continue to fight to excessive fees that limit access to public lands along the Central Coast.