Our community has done a relatively good job of preserving nature and building a tourist economy, but with no end in sight to development pressure and wild lands feeling the pinch we as a community have nature tourism sustainability issues it’s up to us to face and manage. In the current configuration around 20% of Santa Cruz County has been set aside as parks, most of that managed by State Parks but with many other locations falling under the purview of a patchwork of public and private managers. This extensive park system allows us to enjoy diverse and healthy wildlife populations, increased property values, recreational open space, and clean ground & surface water that can only flow from unpolluted drainages. The 8+ million tourists that visit Santa Cruz County each year are a substantial driver of the economy –bringing jobs and tax revenue to our community– and yet, each of the 3 realms of sustainability – social, economic, and environmental – are already facing unprecedented strain, with even greater challenges clearly identifiable in the very near future. There is an urgent need for action.
Socially, both parks users and parks neighbors are facing a crisis of expectations. Visitors do not find the amenities they expect of open space areas; instead they find few restrooms, no interpretation, degraded and dangerous trails, and parks in a humiliating state of neglect. As neighbors with a long-timer’s perspective our experience of the natural areas around us is quickly changing with jammed parking areas, increased motor vehicle traffic, more users of more types, and the inevitable trash, graffiti, emergency response, and noise issues becoming more frequent and more intense. Longtime residents, where able, increasingly adjust their lives to avoid interactions with crowded tourist weekends. Those who live adjacent to public open spaces are more frequently picking up trash and calling law enforcement or for emergency response assistance. The impacts on our community are random and incur real costs, all the while being totally preventable.
Economically, we don’t have a good understanding of costs and benefits of open space users on our local economy. Certainly, many businesses embrace maximizing tourism to improve their profits. But, the tax revenue that nature tourism brings doesn’t seem to be enough to maintain our vehicle access & amenities at parks and hasn’t increased either trash or restroom services. We grimly consider how many more tourism-related accidents our emergency services can accommodate before negatively impacting response time for residents. Parks budgets have not kept up with the increased demand for interpretation, enforcement, trail management, or stewardship activities; local tourist taxes have for the most part not been allocated to our community’s natural attractions, and parks entrance fees are vastly insufficient in the rare cases that they are collected at all.
Ecologically, our area is rich with globally-significant treasures all of which are threatened by increased use. Our rich predator community — understood by biologists to be a key indicator of ecological health– is only holding its own because we have at times been careful to maintain areas with fewer human impacts. Mountain lions, badger, ringtail, bobcat, coyote, and fox all are important to the ecology of our natural areas and each species requires careful planning to ensure sufficient habitat and that human use of those habitats does not disrupt them. Increased visitation also threatens our rare and endangered birds, fish, and amphibians through poaching; introductions of weeds and disease; as well as mere regular behavioral disruption.
How do we create a more sustainable future for natural areas visitation in Northern Santa Cruz County? First and foremost, there must be a more comprehensive natural areas visitation plan across the landscape. Such a plan would address all of the social, economic, and ecological issues raised above. Currently, there are 11 entities operating in various levels of natural areas management isolation. Each time one of those entities proposes a new public access plan, there would be benefit from a more holistic analysis and plan for regional visitor use sustainability.
In addition, and in the meanwhile, there are two other important elements to create a more sustainable public access program: scientific rigor and public accountability. Public access managers are not able to adapt their management to social, economic, or ecological thresholds without good data; without good data, much will be lost. And, without a means for the public to hold them accountable, public access managers will be unable to comply with their civic agreements. Both of these elements require advocates strong enough to allow public access managers to reduce use as necessary and until data exist to support any level of access. Public engagement in natural areas management will be fostered through regular public reporting including convening of community meetings where there is evidence of both the standing of and responsiveness to our community.