(NOTE: This story originally appears at CD2 Emergency Info Blog ).
LOS ANGELES – In early January, two hikers took to Verdugo Mountain Park, a majestic crest that rises 2,000 feet above the Southern Californian landscape. This was not a normal hike and, on that day, the trails were like they’d never seen them before.
It was Jan. 11, and hikers Kristin Sabo and Joe Barrett – open space advocates, neighborhood leaders and north valley residents – traversed the trails a day after Sabo noticed extensive damage to one of the region’s most picturesque landscapes.
Officials now believe a crew of men used shovels and other gear to carve new trails for mountain bikes, altering the narrow, winding hiking paths and presenting challenges to hikers already forced to navigate the thin hillside.
“I was pretty shocked,” said Lake View Terrace resident Sabo, who first discovered the damage the evening of January 10. “I figured they’d been pretty busy.”
The day after she saw what are believed to be thousands of dollars worth of damage, Sabo and Barrett investigated the newly etched trails in daylight, this time bringing a camera to document the altered hillside.
“The scale of the damage that had been done to the area was astonishing,” said Barrett, head of the Sunland-Tujunga Alliance. “This guy had spent a lot of time building trails. I’ve never seen that amount of damage. It was like he built a world-class BMX track. It was unreal.”
The damage went on for at least a mile, Barrett said, and affected nearby fire roads, hikers, horse riders and the natural landscape, which affected the structural integrity of the hiking trails that are about three-feet wide.
As Sabo and Barrett investigated the damage, they soon saw what could have been one of the culprits. A man with a shovel shouted from a distance, “telling us how he was going to carve up the whole canyon,” Sabo said.
Soon, the suspected digger hopped on a mountain bike, streamed down the mountainside (itself an infraction as all mountain biking in Verdugo Mountain Park is illegal) and nearly knocked Sabo out of the way before disappearing down the windy path. They subsequently filed a series of complaints with the police and alerted city officials.
The suspect remains on the lam, though officials with the Department of Recreation and Parks and their public safety wing, the Office of Public Safety, quickly jumped on the case.
Now, city landscape crews are removing the illegally carved out bike ramps and trails. The affected trails will be filled in by hand and all work is set to be finished by Saturday.
The Office of Public Safety has not yet made any arrests regarding the vandalism, but has made several dozen arrests on other issues in the area, including public drunkenness, marijuana smoking and trespassing.
The Verdugo Mountains Park is a relatively new public sphere after the city of Los Angeles dedicated its 565 acres as open space two years ago. Since then, the region has evolved from private property to public land in which hikers of all stripes flock to the preserve.
However, the area has not been free of concern. After the incident on Jan. 10, officials cited 13 residents for trespassing and for possession of marijuana. The police have stepped up patrols and Councilmember Krekorian’s office have gotten involved, including helping Sabo and Barrett navigate the city’s byzantine structure toward a resolution.
“Immediately after hearing of the incident, my staff took action to resolve this situation,” Krekorian said at the time. “We are fortunate to live in a city of immense natural beauty that we are all free to enjoy responsibly. I would urge everyone who hikes, bikes or visits our parks to respect nature as you would your home.”
For Sabo and Barrett, the takeaway is not that mountain biking is bad, nor that there isn’t a place in the region for such activities. They simply want everyone – hikers and not – to abide.
“My message is obey the law,” she said. “To wantonly go into a natural area and carve it up for whatever you want is illegal and immoral. There are other, proper channels to get what you want.”