DANA POINT, Calif. — Two lawsuits have been filed over a short-distance hike that has some of the best views in Dana Point.

It comes down to public access vs. protecting species.

What You Need To Know

  • The Pacific pocket mouse is an endangered species

  • The Headlands trail is open three days a week

  • The city of Dana Point says it should be open seven days a week

  • CNLM claims after revisiting the topic of public access in the area during the pandemic, "it was clear that public use was a threat to the protected species"

The Pacific pocket mouse is tiny but has stirred up some big issues in at the Dana Point. It’s an endangered species that’s been found at the Headlands, a place Dana Point Mayor Joe Muller says has views you can’t beat.

As Muller walked on the trail, he pointed out toward the ocean at some places you can see typically from the Headlands.

“You’ve got Catalina Island right here,” he said. “And then, off in the distance, you can barely see it today, but that’s San Clemente Island. It’s a special place.”

It’s a place he says you’ll see something new every single time.

“This is one of the first places I ever saw a whale looking out here, watching its spout,” Muller said.

But Muller noted that your chances of seeing things like that are limited with a gate at the entrance to the Headlands locked four days a week. The gate is only open three days a week, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

“The trail was supposed to be open every day from 7:00 a.m. to sunset every single day,” he said.

The mayor explained how that was based on the terms of an agreement made in 2010 between the state coastal commission and private developers to build homes at nearby Strands Beach. The mayor and the city attorney say that limiting hours at the Headlands is a violation of California’s Coastal Act and the city municipal code.

The mayor stressed that the public has a right to be here.

“When we came here and found these gates locked, it was almost like a slap in the face to the community,” he said.

This area is managed by the nonprofit Center for Natural Lands Management. The group refused to do an interview but sent over this statement, the same one duct-taped to one of the informational displays along the hike.

The statement says in part, “Trying to protect these species while simultaneously providing access to the public for their enjoyment has been a challenge for the center.”

The trail had been closed temporarily at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, but was reopened in May 2020. The agency said it took that time to revisit the impacts of public access to the preserve species like the Pacific pocket mouse.

The nonprofit claims in its statement, “It was clear that public use was a threat to the protected species.”

It referenced “scientific literature” and studies in the statement without specifics.

But Spectrum News 1 sent a follow-up email to the Center for Natural Lands Management to clarify which specific studies and scientific literature it was referring to, and received the following from the Co-Executive Director Dr. Deborah L. Rogers:

“We had searched for and reviewed many scientific papers — well over 100. And some of those are summaries or analyses of large collections of papers (e.g., one paper is a review of almost 300 scientific papers on this topic). As such, it’s not a simple matter to provide those. This topic — impacts from public use of trails on wildlife — is a rapidly growing field of research and there are many publications. Here are a few quotes from some of the scientific papers:

“‘Indeed, the most basic principle in the field of recreational ecology—an interdisciplinary field that studies the ecological impacts of recreational activities and the management of these activities—is that if outdoor recreation is allowed in an area, impacts to that ecosystem are inevitable’ (Dr. D’Antonio, 2020).

“‘An increasing body of evidence is emerging that indicates non-consumptive recreational activities like hiking, which [doesn’t] involve harvesting of resources, can have harmful effects on species, their habitat, and efforts to protect them’ (Unger 2020).

“‘Outdoor recreation is typically assumed to be compatible with biodiversity conservation and is permitted in most protected areas worldwide. However, increasing numbers of studies are discovering negative effects of recreation on animals. We conducted a systematic review of the scientific literature and analyzed 274 articles on the effects of non-consumptive recreation on animals, across all geographic areas, taxonomic groups, and recreation activities. We quantified trends in publication rates and outlets, identified knowledge gaps, and assessed evidence for effects of recreation. Although publication rates are low and knowledge gaps remain, the evidence was clear with over 93% of reviewed articles documenting at least one effect of recreation on animals, the majority of which (59%) were classified as negative effects.’ (Larson et al 2016).”

The San Diego Wildlife Alliance’s Shauna King has done research on the Pacific pocket mouse since 2015. (The alliance is not involved in the lawsuits in Dana Point.)

King says primary threats to the species include “habitat loss which is through development as well as conversion of the habitats by invasive species, particularly nonnative grasses,” adding that artificial lighting and foot traffic can also have an impact. But she noted that the animals are nocturnal.

The Center for Nature Lands Management accused the city of being “hostile and aggressive” in its statement and filed a lawsuit, in part, to overturn accrued city fines.

The city counter-sued, something Muller said they had hoped to avoid.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “Nobody wants to litigate.”

Especially since the mayor says the two sides agree.

“We all care about environment. We care about any endangered species. We want to protect them as much as we can.”

And Muller added that both sides want to maintain public access, but there’s a disagreement on how to do both.

Current hours and trail information can be found here.