National Park Service to Conduct Visitor Survey on Local Hiking Trails

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National Park Service

Last week, a Malibu resident raised the alarm on a neighborhood social network when she found out that the National Park Service of the Santa Monica Mountains plans on conducting a survey of hikers this month that includes questions about whether they would like to have fire pits or BBQs at the trailheads. She pointed out that “Nearly 40 percent of the trailheads to be surveyed are in Malibu” and asserted that, if built, fire pits and BBQs would “increase wildfire risk in Malibu’s backcountry.” Seven of the trailheads are within the city of Malibu, making up 16 percent of the survey.

David Szymanski, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, explained that representatives from national parks, plus state parks and the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority (MRCA) would be handing out surveys.

“The NPS is the lead agency on the survey because the federal survey process is very restrictive, requiring approval from the White House Office of Management and Budget,” Szymanski said. “NPS has to choose survey questions from a list approved for nationwide use, and not every question applies to every state or location.”

Neighbors expressed concern that survey results in favor of BBQ pits and other amenities may be used as justification for the MRCA to install such amenities, despite neighborhood opposition. Theorizing that members of the MRCA may “stack the deck” by filling out numerous surveys in favor of such moves, a plan was hatched asking residents to “visit a backcountry trailhead, if only to answer the survey.” Szymanski said there was nothing to be alarmed about with this survey. 

“The questions about amenities like BBQs and fire pits come from a national list, and do not reflect the intent of any of the agencies to introduce fire into the mountains here,” Szymanski clarified.

A number of other amenities included in the boilerplate survey, like ballfields, vending machines and wifi, are not appropriate or possible in many locations in the mountains, either, he said. 

“We already have enough visitor centers and are unlikely to build more if people request them,” the superintendent said. “Nonetheless, knowing what people want can help us guide them to existing facilities. If they want fires and charcoal grills, we can refer them to beaches and existing campgrounds where it’s available under supervision. NPS would not build additional BBQs or fire pits simply because there was a demand in the surveys. To be honest, I think over 90 percent of visitors to trailheads are coming for the hike.”

Other than items already mentioned, visitors will also be polled about the following: parking, bathrooms, trail maps, educational information and interpretive services, benches, campgrounds, trash cans, in-person staff/rangers, shade structures, drinking fountains, first aid services, telephones, cellular service, programs put on by the park or other entity, bike racks, picnic tables, electrical hookups, law enforcement personnel onsite, hitching posts, overlooks and viewpoints and dog off-leash areas. 

The last survey of hikers in the Santa Monica Mountains was conducted in 2002, and was similar to the upcoming survey, but spent more time on trail users’ opinions of each other, Szymanski said. In the 2018 survey, “We are trying to understand more about the visitors themselves—how many times they visit, what other trailheads they visit, et cetera. 

“We hope the results will help us choose whether to invest in shade structures, toilets, etcetera,” he continued. “To be honest, I’m most interested in whether people can find their way to the parks. We have a number of questions about trip planning.” 

The on-site survey of visitors over the age of 18 will be conducted from 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. on June 16, 21, 24 and 27 at a total of 45 trailheads.

Szymanski addressed neighbors and urged them not to bring friends to the trailheads in an effort to skew the results of the survey. 

“It’s very important that this survey capture the true demographics of our visitors—if local visitors would normally visit on the survey days, they should do so. However, encouraging people that would not usually visit could bias the survey results, making it seem that public lands paid for by state and federal funds serve a larger proportion of local residents than they actually do,” the superintendent warned. “This could lead people who review the survey to have an inaccurate picture of visitation in the mountains and underestimate their regional and national importance.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect corrected information about the number of trailheads surveyed.