A controversial trail closure in the Coachella Valley may not bring anyone any closure after all. On October 5, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that settles just when hikers will be able to walk the entire length of the popular Mirage Trail, more commonly called the Bump and Grind Trail, in the Santa Rita Mountains above Palm Desert.
The trail has been a jumping off point for controversy and populist anger ever since the California Department of Fish and Game put up a gate barring hikers from the last half mile of the trail, where it crosses into the Magnesia Spring Ecological Reserve. The agency -- now called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife -- said the move was necessary to prevent disruption of the local population of Peninsular bighorn sheep, an endangered species.
That gate was soon vandalized, and hikers filled the forbidden last half mile of trail as their angry comments filled the web pages of local newspapers. The new law, Assembly Bill 1097, has been touted as a compromise that would close the trail during the three month bighorn lambing season and open it for the rest of the year, but local hikers are already vowing to violate even the compromise law.
Closing the last half mile of the two-mile trail during lambing seasons was actually done by Assembly Bill 880, passed by the legislature and signed into law in 2012. AB 880 declared that the trail would close to hikers during a three-month lambing season and open the other nine months a year, but failed to establish just when that three-month lambing season would be. AB 1097 clarifies that issue, closing the trail from February 1 through April 30. Brian Nestande, the Coachella Valley area Assembly member who introduced AB 1097 -- and co-authored AB 880 with Indio Assemblyperson V. Manuel Perez -- said that this year's law was intended to avoid the long and costly process of having Fish and Wildlife establish a lambing season closure period through an Environmental Impact Report process.
Nestande's office consulted with the non-profit wildlife group the Bighorn Institute to come up with a closure period, and that group has endorsed the result. In a recent newsletter, the Institute said:
Bighorn Institute is pleased that a resolution has finally been reached allowing the top of the Bump and Grind Trail to open for nine months of the year (May-January) and we fully support this trail opening. The required fence and educational kiosk at the top of the trail should keep people informed about the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep and protect the important Ramon Peak lambing area above the trail. We trust there will be a balance between recreation and the needs of the sheep so that both can thrive in our valley.
Others aren't as happy. The group Save the Bump And Grind has a Facebook page that's become a virtual gathering point for Coachella Valley people opposed to the closure, and statements abound on the page that neither the Bighorn Institute nor CDFW have proven that hikers on that section of trail harm the local bighorn. Some of those statements go so far as to suggest that CDFW and the Bighorn Institute misrepresent matters of fact about the sheep in the area.
Following the arguments of those opposed to the trail closure, as I've attempted to do since 2010 or so, is enough to give even a seasoned follower of anti-environmental rhetoric a headache. The trail isn't important to bighorn sheep at all because bighorn sheep are never there, say some. Others maintain that hikers aren't bothering the sheep because the sheep are always there even in the presence of hikers. In February of 2011, local hiking author Phillip Ferranti was quoted to very poor effect in an article on the Bump and Grind trail in the Palm Springs Desert Sun:
Philip Ferranti, founder of the 19-year-old Coachella Valley Hiking Club, said the club supports greater access, period, and doesn't think humans' presence harms the bighorns.
"I actually walked with a bighorn sheep a couple of weeks ago," he said. "I've had a number of positive experiences with bighorn sheep, they'll come up to me and sometimes I'll offer them a power bar or peanut butter brittle. They're not nearly as frightened of people as they say."
That article has vanished from the Desert Sun's website, as has Ferranti's vehement response that he would never feed a wild bighorn. (And good for him.) But the part about the bighorn being acclimated to hikers is a very common refrain among Bump and Grind supporters. As are claims of the sheep's nonexistence, or their being displaced less by hikers than by the rampant resort development in the area.
And while the Save the Bump and Grind group points out that CDFW has not yet offered any studies to prove that hikers have an impact on the Endangered bighorn (not an unreasonable point), opponents of the seasonal trail closure have complained that AB 1097 also allocates at least $100,000 to fund just such a study, as in this local news coverage.
With all this vociferous opposition to closing the trail, people who haven't spent time in the Coachella Valley might be excused for assuming that the Bump and Grind is really something special, with amazing views or beautiful immediate surroundings. Such assessments are necessarily subjective. But compared to other trails within a 20-minute drive, the Bump and Grind isn't much to write home about. It's overcrowded and overused, less than miles of trampled up-and-back climbing. There are other common names by which the trail is known locally, and likely the most evocative is "Dog Poop Trail." The really avid hikers I know in the valley avoid the Bump and Grind the way serious hikers in Los Angeles avoid Runyon Canyon, and for much the same reason. It's too crowded, too trashed, and too noisy.
Local hiking guides describing the trail constantly warn against following any of the unauthorized side trails blazed by hikers without a sense of desert trail ethics. People walk their dogs right past the "Dogs Prohibited" sign at the trailhead. (Dogs are a particular problem for the sheep: their mere presence creates stress, and barking and chasing makes that stress worse.) The whole trail is essentially an open-air gym, one which could as easily be anywhere else in the world for all many of its users are concerned.
And as seen in that recent local television news report linked above, some of those repeat users fully intend to violate the closure enacted by the two bill passed over the last year, and they aren't afraid to say so and give their names on television right out in front of everyone.
Which doesn't bode well for the sheep. Especially if the hikers bring their dogs.