CA State Parks policy of no exclusive horse camping

Post date: Jul 26, 2014 1:27:31 AM

25 Sep 2014: Press Release from the Cuyamaca Equestrian Stakeholder Group concerning non-equestrian use of the horse camping facilities in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park


Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has had a long history of providing day use and overnight facilities for equestrians and their families. Los Caballos Horse Camp was established in the park in 1951 and was originally intended to be a way station/camp on the California Riding and Hiking Trail—a trail approved, mapped and established by the California State legislature to honor our country’s war veterans. Equestrians or families with stock could reserve sites in the camp individually, and it originally did not even have corrals. Los Vaqueros Group Horse Camp was opened in 1961 to provide a place where equestrian clubs or groups could camp together. It has 45 corrals, a gathering area with a fire ring, and a large open area for people to camp and park their vehicles. Los Caballos Horse Camp was relocated and rebuilt in 1972 with extensive support of the equestrian community and local legislators and the inclusion of a day use staging area. It had eighteen individual camping sites. In 2003 the Cedar Fire devastated most of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park; and due to heroic efforts by firefighters and park staff, Los Caballos Horse Camp was minimally impacted—only one bathroom was burned. But, sadly, during the efforts to rebuild the camp, California State Parks made the decision to permanently close the camp, reroute some trails, and remove all of the buildings and corrals due to cultural concerns: Native Americans had lived in the area for centuries prior to the construction of the camp, and their descendants asked that the camp be closed. This was done with minimal consultation with the equestrian community and before the establishment of another location for equestrian families to camp or the creation of a plan for the construction of a replacement. This action by State Parks created huge dissention in the equestrian community and has significantly affected the ability of equestrians to enjoy Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

In response to significant pressure from the equestrian community, a loop of Green Valley Campground was modified into Green Valley Family Equestrian Camp in May of 2011. The camp has 14 sites. Although State Parks installed corrals and made some improvements to the campground, the camp was not originally designed as an equestrian camp and has significant problems with site accessibility for the larger stock trailers with living quarters that many equestrians use today. There is also limited access from the campground to the park trail system and a limited amount of flat ground to set up a camp.

In the early 1980’s, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park began the process of creating an equestrian campground at Merigan Trailhead, near the town of Descanso at the southern edge of the park. A campground was designed, and the permitting process began; but pressure from the Descanso community and construction costs forced State Parks to abandon the plan, and no camp was ever built.

Past negotiations between equestrians and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Subsequent to the loss of Los Caballos Horse Camp after the Cedar Fire in 2003, a group of equestrians began to negotiate with State Parks to resolve the problems created by the closing of the camp. Many of those equestrians had been frequenting the camp since childhood, and some families had used the camp for three generations. Equestrians had come from all over California (and beyond) for decades to enjoy the park and camp, and the loss of Los Caballos resonated throughout their community and caused a significant amount of hardship and animosity. The equestrian community was devastated with the loss of the camp, and feelings of mistrust of State Parks were created then that continue to this day. The Cuyamaca Equestrian Association was established in 2004 to work with State Parks and represent the numerous equestrian groups and individuals impacted by the loss of Los Caballos. When the groups working to reopen Los Caballos became aware that its reopening was not a realistic possibility, focus shifted to the establishment of an equivalent camp in the same general area—the north end of the park—where equestrians would be able to continue to access the extensive, connected trail system in place there and the beauty of Lake Cuyamaca. (This is also the location of Los Vaqueros Group Horse Camp.) Leaders of the equestrian community met extensively with State Parks staff and traveled to numerous locations in the north end of the park to determine if they would be acceptable as a possible horse camp location. Almost all of the locations proposed by State Parks at the time were unusable for one reason or another: too small, lack of flat ground, road access issues, or cultural concerns (both historic and prehistoric). State Parks leadership and staff voiced their intent at the time to establish an individual horse camp in the north end of the park, but no location was ever selected, no plan was ever established, and no date was set for its completion.

Negotiations between State Parks staff and equestrian groups, including the Cuyamaca Equestrian Association and the Backcountry Horsemen of California-San Diego Unit, have continued over the years with the intent of the establishment of an individual or family horse camp in the north end of the park and the availability of day use parking for equestrians in all areas of the park. When Cuyamaca Rancho State Park began the process of creating a new General Plan for the park in 2012, an Equestrian Stakeholders Committee was established to help State Parks determine policy concerning equestrian trail use, access, and camping. Several of the equestrians who had been negotiating with State Parks about trail and camp issues since the loss of Los Caballos became members of that committee and continue to be on it today. They have met extensively with State Parks staff to address issues and concerns with the proposed plan and are currently waiting for the release of the final draft.

Current problems with Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

In July of 2014, members of the Equestrian Stakeholders Committee were made aware of two issues affecting Green Valley and Los Vaqueros Horse Camps. The first involved non-equestrian groups reserving Los Vaqueros. While the committee members were aware that non-equestrian groups had been able to reserve the camp on a occasional basis in the past (usually when other user groups did fundraisers for the park or Native American groups gathered), we did not feel at the time that this was enough of a problem to address. However, committee members were advised that non-equestrian groups were beginning to reserve the camp more often; therefore, committee members felt the need at that time to address the issue with State Parks staff.

Part of the problem may be that since the Cedar Fire in 2003, Los Vaqueros has been the only group camp, equestrian or otherwise, in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The Paso Picacho Group camp nearby has been closed since the fire and is not anticipated to reopen by park staff for at least three years, and one loop will remain closed due to cultural concerns. This is placing pressure on State Parks to provide facilities for group camping and is creating a situation where non-equestrian camping groups (who normally would use Paso Picacho or other facilities) to reserve Los Vaqueros, even though the reservation website (ReserveAmerica) states that you must have horses with you to camp there.

The problems with Green Valley Family Horse Camp involved the filling of empty sites with non-equestrian campers. State Parks staff had recently asked personnel at the entry kiosk to begin offering non-reserved sites in the equestrian camp to non-equestrian campers. This immediately created a conflict between equestrians and non-equestrians who were not aware of the safety and liability concerns that are present around stock. The very first weekend this new policy was enacted there numerous problems and conflicts, and park rangers had to be contacted several times to resolve them.

Equestrian Stakeholders Committee member Peggy Martin found out about these problems and requested a meeting with State Parks staff to clarify what was going on and to determine their intentions. Because the members of the Stakeholders Committee had been meeting with State Parks staff previously as part of the new General Plan for the park and had an established reputation and success record, Peggy decided to have them attend the meeting with her so that their valued input could be part of the process.

At the July 23rd meeting, the members of the Stakeholders Committee met with Colorado Desert District Superintendent Dan Falat and incoming Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Sector Superintendent Kevin Best. (Mr. Falat is Mr. Best’s supervisor.) Mr. Falat told us that he did not feel that he could make the horse camping facilities at Cuyamaca (Los Vaqueros and Green Valley) in his words “exclusive use.” In other words, they were open to anyone who wanted to reserve them. He also stated that this was his decision and his alone, and it wasn’t a new policy being enacted; rather, it was a lack of a previous policy, which had never been an issue in the past. When committee members pointed out that the reservation system used by State Parks (ReserveAmerica) states that horses are required to reserve the sites at Green Valley and the camp at Los Vaqueros, he stated that that was ReserveAmerica’s policy, not State Parks, and that State Parks staff were unwilling or unable to police the policy. Mr. Falat stated that he had consulted with state legal consultants and spoke with other current and prior supervisors and superintendents, who told him that the practice of placing non-equestrian campers in equestrian sites was common statewide. Mr. Falat also stated that State Parks had been doing this for a while locally and it was not a new policy. Committee members responded that as far as we knew, this was a new policy, and that because of the equestrian community’s sensitivity since the loss of Los Caballos, the implementation of any such policy would have created a firestorm of protest and would have been immediately addressed. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Falat stated the policy of Los Vaqueros being open for anyone to reserve would continue, that State Parks staff would continue to place non-equestrians in sites in Green Valley Family Horse Camp, and that State Parks staff would not enforce campers reserving sites without stock. He did state that any empty sites in Green Valley Family Horse Camp would be handled in the same manner as ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) sites currently are handled by the park: i.e., if the site is empty at 5 PM, it can be filled with any camper—equestrian or not—but only on a day-to-day basis.

After the meeting, the members of the Stakeholders Committee decided that there was little chance of success continuing to negotiate with local State Parks staff. The decision was made to continue our efforts at the state level. It was decided that two organizations—the Cuyamaca Equestrian Association and Backcountry Horsemen of California-San Diego Unit—would take the lead in our efforts (the Cuyamaca Equestrian Association because they have extensive experience dealing with Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, and they are an umbrella organization representing several clubs and groups; and Backcountry Horsemen of California-San Diego Unit because they also have extensive experience negotiating with local public land agencies and have trained public lands specialists and legal aids at the local, state, and federal levels, which has the potential to be extremely helpful to us). Committee members contacted individuals at the Sacramento level of the State Parks organization with whom we had a prior relationship to determine whether this was indeed a local or state policy change. We have received some response back, and we are waiting for more. A letter has been sent by the committee to the Director of State Parks expressing our concerns and requesting that a dialog with state level staff be established to address these problems. After a period with no response, a second letter was recently sent. [See Related References section below.]

What are we asking for, and why?

We are asking for equestrians to be able to access Cuyamaca Rancho State Park with their families, as they have in the past. California State Parks promotes in their literature a quality camping experience for all users, yet the ability for equestrians to have access to features in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park continues to be eroded. San Diego County has one of the highest horse-to-human ratios in the country; yet less than 7% of the campsites in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park are available to equestrians. Equestrians are limited to those few sites because of the infrastructure required by State Parks: stock containment, manure management, and their concern for public safety. Now those few sites we have are being offered to non-equestrians, but those sites in their non-equestrian camps are not available to us. We feel this is an inappropriate action toward equestrians and shows discrimination against a specific user group—us—at a time when State Parks is under public pressure to create parity for all. Equestrians in both Green Valley and Los Vaqueros have noticed a significant increase in vehicle traffic through those camps since these new policies have been enacted. With the all social media available today, the word is getting out and people are now doing what they never did before: looking at the horse camps as a possible non-equestrian destination. Non-equestrians with large “toy hauler” trailers are sizing up the sites in Green Valley Family Horse Camp and reserving the few sites available there that can accommodate larger horse trailers, leaving even less opportunity for equestrians to camp. We feel that the overall camping experience for equestrians in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park continues to deteriorate, and we are asking the State Parks staff in Sacramento for dialog and resolution to these problems.

In conclusion, we are asking for Green Valley Family Horse Camp and Los Vaqueros Group Horse Camp to be for equestrian campers and their families only.

If that is not possible, we ask that no non-equestrian campers are to be placed in the sites at Green Valley Family Horse Camp unless both Green Valley and Paso Pichacho Campgrounds are full.

We are asking for State Parks to monitor the campgrounds and enforce the “with stock only” criteria for camping in Green Valley and Los Vaqueros that are set forth in the guidelines that were given to ReserveAmerica by State Parks and that are currently present on ReserveAmerica’s website and enforced by their customer service representatives.

We are willing to allow State Parks to continue allowing non-equestrian groups to reserve Los Vaqueros Group Horse Camp until the time when the group camp at Paso Picacho reopens, as long as we are guaranteed exclusive equestrian group use after that.

We are proposing that State Parks offer equestrian groups the first opportunity to reserve Los Vaqueros Group Camp before opening reservations—say two months prior to the requested camping dates—to non-equestrian groups, during the time until the group camp at Paso Pichacho reopens, after which Los Vaqueros is once again Los Vaqueros Horse Camp. If the price for a night at Los Vaqueros was reduced for midweek Tuesday and Wednesday, the camp would likely increase its utilization rate and therefore increase revenue.

18 Sep 2014: Cuyamaca Equestrian Stakeholder Group Statement to Equestrians

The members of the Cuyamaca Equestrian Stakeholders Committee would like to thank all of you who took the time to share with us how you feel we should negotiate with California State Parks concerning their integration of non-equestrian campers into Green Valley Equestrian Horse Camp and Los Vaqueros Group Horse Camp in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Your opinions are always welcome and valid. While we all would like to see both camps used only by equestrians, State Parks has recently made the determination that there is no “exclusivity” to the camps and has begun to allow non-equestrians to reserve Los Vaqueros Group Camp and to allow non-equestrians to camp at Green Valley Horse Camp, even though their ReserveAmerica reservation site clearly states anyone making a reservation at either camp must have stock with them. After meeting with Cuyamaca Rancho State Park staff, the members of the committee sent two letters to the Acting Director of California State Parks, Lisa Mangat; and on September 2nd we received a reply from Acting Southern Division Chief Ketterer. The committee is currently in the process of replying to that letter replied to that letter on September 23.

The Equestrian Stakeholders Committee feels that this change of policy is to a large part motivated by State Park’s intention to generate as much revenue as possible from all campgrounds. But we feel that by mixing equestrian and non-equestrian campers in the same campground they are increasing the potential risk to all parties involved by having individuals and families not familiar with stock camping in close proximity to campers with stock, creating a higher level of liability for all that was not present beforehand.

The equestrian community needs to bear some degree of responsibility for this policy change by State Parks. Green Valley Equestrian Camp and Los Vaqueros Group Horse camp have become increasingly underutilized by equestrians recently, resulting in frequent empty campsites. There are many reasons for this, amongst them reservation cost and the fact that not all sites at Green Valley are useable by the larger trailers with living quarters that many equestrians use nowadays. But the reality is that if equestrians were reserving and using all the sites on a regular basis, this problem would probably not have developed, or at least not have had as much of an impact as it has. One of the ways the equestrian community can help us to resolve this issue is to start reserving and using the camps and sites more often.

There has been significant debate both within and outside this committee as to the proper approach to negotiating with State Parks concerning these issues. After a significant amount of debate, the committee intends to propose to State Parks limited shared use (equestrian and non-equestrian) for the campsites at Green Valley Horse Camp. Reservations can only be made by campers bringing stock (as is currently required when reserving sites at Green Valley on the ReserveAmerica website), and non-equestrian campers will only be placed in Green Valley Horse Camp on a day-to-day basis after 5 pm and only when Paso Picacho and Green Valley Campgrounds are already full.

At Los Vaqueros Group Horse Camp, the committee will support the "preferred access to equestrian amenities by requiring persons who make a reservation to acknowledge they will be traveling with a horse" provided by State Parks as per Acting Southern Division Chief Brian Ketterer's letter to the committee dated September 2.

The committee supports State Parks maintaining the current wording and criteria for Green Valley Equestrian Camp and Los Vaqueros Group Horse Camp on their ReserveAmerica site which requires campers to have stock to reserve sites at these camps.

The committee will ask that State Parks staff monitor campers at both equestrian camps to insure that those who reserve specifying they are bringing stock actually do and request that any who do not be asked by park staff to leave. And we ask that the equestrian camps be patrolled regularly by rangers to insure that any issues between equestrian and non-equestrian campers are addressed immediately and appropriately.

The committee also will ask that State Parks staff immediately develop and implement an equestrian appropriate plan for "etiquette interpretation and education” at Green Valley Equestrian Camp, as is referred to in Acting Southern Division Chief Ketterer’s letter to the committee dated September 2.

There is currently a meeting scheduled between the committee and local legislators and local State Parks staff. Our future actions depend a large part on the outcome of that meeting. We are asking the equestrian community to write their State legislators (Senators and Assemblymen) and ask that they help in the resolution of these issues. We ask that you sign the petitions being circulated asking for State Parks to open and maintain a dialog with the equestrian community concerning these issues. And we ask you to check with the Cuyamaca Equestrian Association, the Cuyamaca Equestrian Stakeholder Committee, and the Backcountry Horsemen of California-San Diego Unit (and our BCHC-SD Facebook page) for current information and updates. You are encouraged to leave your comments or recommendations for us at any of these sites.

~Equestrian Stakeholder Group (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park GENERAL PLAN)

Related References