The Horse and Mule Trail Riders in the 805 MeetUp was proud to organize a
Winter Solstice celebratory ride to commemorate the recent judicial
decision to return the Live Oak trails to EQUESTRIANS ONLY !
I did my part by drawing the logo above, and a small and persistent group of riders never gave up on turning back the agenda of the bureaucrats who wanted to open the trails to bikes. It will now remain the ONLY trail system in all of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties dedicated to use exclusively by equestrians.
Efforts by the Santa Barbara County supervisors to allow hikers, joggers, dogs and cyclists to co-exist with horseback riders for the first time on The Live Oak Trail — located on the north side of Lake Cachuma — took a major fall last week in Judge Thomas Anderle’s courtroom, when Judge Anderle ruled the county violated the state laws governing environmental review and awarded the equestrians who sued $300,000 in legal fees for their pain.
Anderle, by far the most experienced Santa Barbara judge when it comes to environmental law, shredded the county’s argument that the project was exempt from environmental analysis because it fell within the purview of a major planning document on Lake Cachuma and its environs authored 12 years ago.
“Unpersuasive,” Anderle wrote multiple times of the county’s arguments that the impacts of expanded trail use were too minor to trigger an environmental impact report (EIR). “No evidence,” he added.
The upshot is that county planners can either appeal Anderle’s ruling or submit the plans to allow hikers and bikers to use the trail — long the exclusive domain of horseback riders — to the rigors of environmental analysis.
Anderle took pains to praise the legal briefs filed by both sides over a dispute that he characterized as having been contentious and acrimonious. If anything, he understated the heat of the battle. Last January, county planners issued what’s known as a “Notice of Exemption,” meaning that the project — opening up the trail to multiple uses — would not be subject to an EIR. If anyone objected, the county argued, they had 35 days to act.
Because of COVID, the Notice of Exemption could not be read at the County Clerk’s Office of the County Administration Building — the customary location — but was instead placed in the lobby of the County Administration Building. There was nothing at the time to notify members of the public of this change or that the doors to the Administration Building were locked and could be opened only by a county employee stationed inside.
Anderle mocked county arguments that the pertinent documents had been posted on a clipboard and placed on a table that was visible from the front door of the Administration Building. “The public’s right to challenge an action … cannot depend on their ability to peer through a glass door to read a clipboard lying flat on a table,” the judge ruled.
Likewise, the judge found sufficient evidence that the expansion of the trail to include new users might disrupt eagles nesting nearby. Roughly 75 equestrians use the trail per month, Anderle stated. By opening the trail to hikers in April 2021 as part of a pilot project, he said, that number shot up to 200 users. Although the plans included allowances for bike riders on the trail as well, they were never allowed. In addition, Anderle found that the trail appears to pass near or through “special status plant and bird locations.”
For equestrians who protested the decision to open up the trail to other users, the ruling marks an unadulterated victory. Their attorney Susan Petrovich was awarded legal fees of $300,000. They had fought the expansion of uses, arguing that the combination of horses, hikers, runners, and bikers in the same narrow quarters was inherently unsafe.
Supervisor Joan Hartmann — both a multi-trails advocate and an equestrian herself — stated, “I am disappointed with this outcome. It is the county policy to be inclusive and allow all user groups to use all public trails.” Hartmann said the county relied on the environmental analysis contained in the 2010 Cachuma Lake Resource Management Plan, which she said had been subjected to “extensive environmental review and public comment.”
Anderle noted that report had been prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation — a federal agency, not the County of Santa Barbara. That report, he added, stated the impacts of such a policy would be “minor, with the exception of conflicts among trail users,” but that there was no detailed or site-specific analysis provided.
Today we rode out with a Grandfather who was patiently and carefully teaching his tiny Grandson to ride. He had a lead rope running over to the second horse, and his Grandson was a brave lad and obviously determined to live up to expectations.
But it turns out they'd been out riding the day before, and sometimes the tiny cowboy needed to get off and walk. Anyone who has experienced sore muscles from riding can be empathetic.
Now, imagine a mountain biker with headphones in their ears blasting death metal careening at top speed around that corner, potentially spooking the horses and running over the boy. It is to prevent such dangerous "conflicts among trail users" that a very persistent group of us have been giving testimony at zoom meetings and in person. And for now, we have success.
It is my tradition to take portraits of everyone at the first overlook from which we observe Lake Cachuma.
CC Beaudette-Wellman on Woody the senior Quarterhorse/Paint
and of course your author, Pat Fish on Tobe the Rocky Mountain mule
We are unperturbed. Bad enough when we descend back into the City we will have to deal with politics and pandemics. Out here we respect the laws of nature, and we are just visitors and behave with respect.
And a look up into the Live Oak Camp, that equestrians dream could become a world-class attraction bringing horse and mule riders from all over. Managed on the same paradigm as the Montana de Oro horse camps, which are reserved well in advance all year round, it could be a significant income source for the County and a boost to tourism in the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara. At present it is only rented for big weekend festivals like Lucidity and Reggae on the Mountain, and a few weddings, but with proper planning and the addition of pole paddocks on campsites it could be a big draw. IF, of course, it remains equestrian only.
A girl can hope! And meanwhile I will be riding here as often as possible and thinking positively that our jewel of a trail system will remain safe and serene.
## PAT FISH ##
### FIN ###