Pictured: Cars of visitors to the River Bottom preserve in Ojai filled the River View parking lot and lined both sides of Rice Road, on Sunday, May 3, 2020. Photo by Kimberly Rivers

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com

The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy (OVLC) has hired a private security company to help enforce parking regulations and other rules at its trail heads as a flood of people visit the nearly 2,000 acres of trails and swimming holes managed by the nonprofit organization in the Ojai Valley.  

“This is usually our busiest time of year,” said Tom Maloney, executive director of OVLC. But it’s being compounded by the closure of other open spaces as well as closed parking lots at other outdoor recreation spaces, such as parks and beaches. In addition, swimming holes along the Ventura River are drawing more people. “A confluence of hot weather and cool water.” 

Hikers on the trail in Los Padres National Forest to the Punch Bowls swimming hole in the Upper Ojai area above Santa Paula have been parking cars on both sides of highway 150, also creating a nuisance for residents in that area. The volunteer Upper Ojai Search and Rescue team counted over 1000 people visiting that trail on May 10, observing an inability of the hikers to adhere to social distancing requirements. 

Sign at Shelf Road trail head on Signal Street in Ojai. Photo by Kimberly Rivers

“Our board really wants to stay open,” Maloney said, emphasizing that it’s the mission of the organization to provide access to natural spaces, and they feel that during this time that is even more important. 

Hiring security personnel was not included in the annual budget for the OVLC, which under normal conditions could manage enforcement. But the recent increase in crowds has called for a “different skill set,” according to Maloney. The security detail is encouraging people to park legally and not block ingress and egress, as well as enforcing the no-alcohol policy and encouraging people to pack out their trash. 

The weekend of April 25-26 saw overflowing parking lots with cars lined up along roadways and through the residential neighborhoods near the trail heads at River View and Oso. At the Riverbottom trail head at Meyer Road, cars lined up on both sides of the entry to the parking lot, blocking emergency vehicle access. The weekend of May 2-3 was almost as bad.

“River View was over the top,” Maloney said. The parking lot was overflowing, and cars parked up Rice Road and wrapped around onto El Roblar. Security made sure cars didn’t block other vehicles in the parking lot and Maloney said it has helped, as has the city of Ojai closing North Signal Street — an access point to the popular Shelf Road hiking trail. Even so, there is very limited parking. “Neighbors are justifiably frustrated.” 

With soccer fields, volleyball courts and other recreation spaces still closed to the public, people are hitting the natural areas hard.

“With the heatwave we are seeing a lot of people coming into nature who don’t have a lot of experience being in nature,” Maloney said, noting that lots of coolers are being brought in and trash left behind. Someone even got a golf cart-sized electric “buggy” of sorts down to the swimming hole. “I don’t know how they got it there,” he said. 

OVLC made the decision to lock all of its garbage cans to encourage visitors to pack out their garbage and prevent OVLC staff from having to handle other people’s trash — something they’d typically do, but that the organization has reconsidered in light of the coronavirus. 

“This hasn’t gone as we might have hoped,” Maloney admitted. Staff is having to “deal with a lot of people leaving trash.” Including the dreaded abandoned dog poop bags, which are now being stacked on top of the locked garbage cans instead of going into people’s cars. So far, staff prefer using a grabbing stick to collect garbage rather than cleaning out the garbage cans.

In terms of staying open, Maloney said that he speaks by phone to officials from the city of Ojai and Ventura County each Friday to assess and coordinate. “We are monitoring it hour to hour.” 

ONLINE UPDATE: after press deadline the Board of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy voted to close the trailheads at the Ventura River Trail Preserve Friday to Monday for the rest of May. Mirroring the rules instituted at local beaches hiking, horseback and bicycle riding are allowed on the trails but gathering along the river and swimming will not be permitted. Blankets, chairs, floating toys, umbrellas, coolers and alcohol will not be permitted in the preserve. 

The statement announcing the new restrictions cite the increased activity is harming the “stream bank habitats and water quality.” The OVLC reported, “Visitors are trampling vegetation, disturbing the streambed and have left mountains of trash.”  

For more information about the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy visit: www.ovlc.org