The place looks like the surface of an alien planet.
The ground is bleak, barren and black, broken occasionally only by the ghostlike skeleton of a charred tree. Here and there, patches of burned cactus squat on the desolate land. And floating on the wind above, a lone turkey vulture--the only sign of life for miles--gamely searches for dead meat below.
This is how Laguna Coast Wilderness Park looks nearly four weeks after the devastating fire scorched nearly 3,000 of its formerly lush acres.
And now, according to authorities, curious hikers and bicyclists are furthering the environmental damage caused by the fire. They are worsening the threat of erosion, traumatizing displaced animals and trampling over new-budding plants.
"They're not doing anything malicious," said Larry Sweet, the Orange County park ranger who watches over the area. "They just don't understand how sensitive the environment is."
Although recreation enthusiasts say that authorities are overstating the problem, there are clear signs of human intrusion at the closed park.
A series of jagged white lines made from the thick rubber tires of mountain bikes runs like rivulets down the side of a hill. And by the side of a dirt road, human footprints can clearly be seen.
Intruders have never been encouraged here or in the adjacent 6,600 acres managed by the Nature Conservancy for the Irvine Co. To enter this area in any way other than as part of a docent-led tour on a specially marked trail is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 or six months in jail. The same holds true for Crystal Cove State Park, which closed its gates after the Oct. 27 fire scorched 2,400 acres.
But the trespassing that has always been a minor problem has now become a critical one, biologists say. The fire destroyed acres of coastal sagebrush that, in addition to providing much-needed protection for wildlife, acted as a natural barrier keeping hikers and bikers off the fragile soil.
With the vegetation gone, they say, trespassers are now trudging over previously inaccessible areas, leaving footprints and bicycle trails whose impact prevents the soil from absorbing moisture and is likely to cause erosion during the coming rainy season.
The intruders' presence, according to biologists, further traumatizes already stressed-out animals that now have nowhere to hide. And the absence of barriers, they say, allows people to tromp over new-budding plants as well as destroy fossils, geological formations and archeological artifacts.
"The fact is that people don't realize what fragile condition the area is in," said Tim Miller, regional parks manager for the county. "It needs all the help it can get, and the best help it can get is for people to stay away and let nature take its course."
To help nature along, the managing agencies of all three open space areas employ a handful of rangers and deputies to patrol their plots. Recently, the Nature Conservancy bolstered its effort by adding several volunteer equestrian patrols. And the county increased its own vigilance by organizing six new volunteer foot patrols.
Still, the trespassing continues.
On any given weekend, Sweet said, he catches as many as 15 intruders riding their bikes, hiking or jogging in Laguna Coast Regional Park. Mark Sanderson, docent coordinator for the Nature Conservancy, which manages the Irvine Co. property, says he spots up to 20 trespassers each weekend, mostly mountain bicyclists. And over at Crystal Cove State Park, supervising park ranger Michael Eaton said that his staff catches an average of six trespassers a day.
Local bicyclists, while admitting that some trespassing occurs, say the rangers are exaggerating the ecological damage.
"The bicyclists' contribution to the decay is very small," said Dirk Maes, president of a local mountain bicyclists' club called the Laguna Rads whose members, he says, "have used Laguna Coast Wilderness as their playground for years."
"Most people care about what's going on out there, but (the area) should be shared," Maes said. "It shouldn't be quarantined."
Chuck Densford, owner of Laguna's Rainbow Bicycle Co., which specializes in mountain bikes, agrees. He said not many bicyclists trespass. "The majority of mountain bikers respect what's going on. They're not stupid. They understand what's happened, and I think they are going to respect everybody's wishes."
Both Maes and Densford said they are urging fellow bikers and others to stay out of the closed wilderness areas or, if they do enter them, to stay on existing trails.
One group, in fact, has organized teams of volunteers ready to patrol the parks when they reopen to help keep visitors on the trails.
"We want to provide a conscience," said Jim Meyer, founder of the Orange County Trails Council, an umbrella group made up of about 30 hiking, bicycling, jogging and equestrian clubs. "We have a whole group of people ready to go as soon as the park tells us we can have access."
Officials at Crystal Cove State Park say that the park is closed indefinitely, perhaps for as long as a year. Docent tours at Laguna Coast Regional Park, which were suspended because of the fire, are set to resume about Jan. 1. And biologists at the Nature Conservancy say they plan to begin scheduling tours of the Irvine Co. land again sometime in the spring.
In the meantime, rangers say, most violators are simply given a warning and asked to leave. "We're more interested in educating people than in citing them," Sweet said.
Occasionally, however, trespassers must be personally escorted from the park.