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Too Much Love May Be Hurting San Diego Park

Evening Edition

Aired 2/11/16 on KPBS News.

Torrey Pines State Reserve is the third most visited state park in California. Park officials are working hard to keep all those visitors from damaging the fragile resources.

On any given day, Torrey Pines State Reserve hosts an average of 9,000 people. That number swells on weekends and holidays and recedes a bit in the middle of the week. Over the course of a year, that adds up to close to 3 million visitors.

“We’ve got the state beach and the scenic bluffs along the coastline,” said Robin Greene, the California State Parks superintendent at Torrey Pines.

“We’ve got the state natural reserve which is basically the hilltop, the higher elevation on top of the bluffs and the area surrounding. Then we’ve got the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon,” Greene said.

The reserve can be stunning, depending on the weather or time of day, but the park’s popularity comes as much from where it is as from what’s there. Nestled next to the ocean, the reserve is an island of natural habitat in a sea of civilization.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Cars and hikers pour into Torrey Pines State Reserve on Jan. 1, 2016.

“I think it’s the fact that you’re in the middle of a big city, but within just a few minutes walk you can be alone, looking at one of the most beautiful views around,” Greene said. “Being on top of the bluffs and looking at the ocean, you can see from La Jolla to Oceanside on a clear day. It is really beautiful.”

That popularity makes the park a financial engine. The reserve generated about $2 million in revenue from parking and passes last year.

But the popularity comes with headaches. All those visitors challenge a small state park staff to protect the reserve’s fragile natural resources.

Dylan Hardenbrook is one of the reserve’s four rangers. He stood on an overlook and pointed out a popular hiking destination just a few hundred yards away. The red outcropping offers commanding and sought-after views of the ocean. Visitors are sometimes too impatient to get there.

“The trail is back up behind us, but they can see the natural shortcut,” Hardenbrook said. “So they climb over the fence, and you can see the erosion it’s caused down in front. The large trail intersecting the razor trails down below.”

It is easy to see a clear path carved out in the scrub. That path that is now blocked off so hikers stay out and the habitat can recover.

Reserve officials spent nearly $100,000 installing what they call needle and thread guide-wires along trails. The thin metal posts have wire strung between them. The idea is to keep hikers from wandering without spoiling the view.

“The types of soils and vegetation at Torrey Pines are really susceptible to being trampled upon. The ground is very erosive and the types of plants take years to decades to recover once they get trampled on,” Hardenbrook said.

The local wildlife is another reason to stay on the trails. A resident rattlesnake made its way through the park on a recent morning. It is not a common sight, but the park celebrates the uncommon. There are 40 plants in the reserve that are rare enough to have special status. One, the short leaf dudleya, is only found here in the park and one other nearby location.

“And we have several of the rarest plants in the world and certainly in California and they grow right out in the open surface here. And it looks like an open, nice place where it’s easy to walk to,” said Darren Smith, park ranger and ecologist.

The problem with just walking through a wild area is that one poorly placed step can kill a critically endangered plant, Smith said. But protecting the habitat, preserving historical sites and making the park people friendly is all part of the job at the reserve.

“We want people to come here and experience it and enjoy it, but we’re tasked with doing that in a manner that they don’t impact it and destroy it. It's very difficult and it's very expensive, dealing with this many people in this small a space,” Smith said.

Park rangers said more than 90 percent of visitors follow the rules, stay on the paths and enjoy the park with minimal environmental impact. But the park can get 15,000 visitors on a sunny weekend or holiday. Rangers said educating visitors is the key, but they admit that the small staff and volunteer docents can be overwhelmed by the crowds.

Visitors stand on an overlook at Torrey Pines State Reserve on Jan. 25, 2016.

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