Written by Tara Leonard
SANTA CRUZ (May, 2011) - On a wind-swept coastal terrace high above Monterey Bay, Erica Berg and her 27-year-old Arabian, Jade, are gearing up for a ride in Wilder Ranch State Park. But today, along with her sturdy riding helmet and well-worn boots, Berg wears a standard-issue state park ranger’s uniform of green work pants and a beige shirt bearing a ranger’s patch. Berg recently joined more than three-dozen Horse Patrol volunteers who ride in local state parks, doing their part to support the increasingly cash-strapped park system.
“I love the park and know there are all these budget cuts,” said Berg. “This is an easy way to make a contribution and support the rangers.”
The Horse Patrol program was established in 1988 at Wilder Ranch, a 7,000-acre coastal park located just north of Santa Cruz with more than 34 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails. It soon extended to Felton’s 4,000-acre Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. While riders are not expected to enforce the law, they assist rangers by providing information to visitors, assisting in fire detection, searching for lost people and animals, and reporting back to rangers about illegal camping, hunting, vandalism, and other issues.
“Basically we’re the eyes and ears of the rangers,” said long-time volunteer and Felton resident Linda Richmond. Now in her seventies, Richmond began patrolling Henry Cowell along with her husband, Steve, in 1989. She’s ridden several horses since then, but currently patrols on Dandy, a Tennessee walking horse. “If hikers have an apple in their backpack he knows it!” Richmond laughed.
“We report on trail conditions and downed trees,” she continued. “We’ve looked for loose horses and told people where they’re allowed to have dogs or ride bikes. We like it because when you ride in the park you meet people from all over the world. It’s always really interesting.”
“Horses can go in areas where cars and ATVs can’t,” added Bonny Doon’s Georgia Randall, a retired school teacher who patrols Wilder on her Arabian, Scarlet. “The patrol reduces costs and overhead. It frees up rangers to do other things. With low staffing now, they really appreciate us letting them know what’s going on.”
Patrolling since 1995, Randall has encountered everything from a man running naked in the park (“He just liked to run that way and whenever he would see people coming he’d duck into the bushes!”) to bucked riders, sleek bob cats, and injured bikers. “Last year I put in 95 hours,” Randall said. “I love to ride so I might as well be doing something good while I’m at it.”
Roughly 37 locals feel the same, according to State Park Ranger Scott Sipes, who oversees the program. “We have people of every make and age in our local patrol,” he said. Members range from their 20s to their 80s and include a retired police officer, teachers, nurses, realtors, and engineers. “Wilder is a big park. When we have somebody out there, it’s really a luxury,” Sipes said. “They’re ancillary to our regular patrols by foot, vehicle and ATV, giving us more frequent trail coverage and greater visibility. It helps people feel safe and it also provides great public relations. Everyone loves the horses!”
Here’s how it works. Volunteers must be at least eighteen years old and own their own horse. They have to attend a training session and go on a series of check-out rides with experienced riders. Horses must be able to negotiate difficult terrain, tie quietly for extended periods, and remain calm when encountering bikes, dogs, and other park visitors. Once approved, riders are expected to volunteer 50 hours a year, always riding in pairs for safety, with a radio for communication. Riders also attend monthly meetings to share information with Sipes and their fellow volunteers.
“We’re so lucky to have these parks in Santa Cruz,” Berg concluded, gracefully swinging into the saddle. “There are lots of ways for people to volunteer in the parks and this is just one of them.”
Volunteer Erica Berg wears a state park ranger's uniform to increase visibility while patrolling in Wilder Ranch. Tara Leonard ©santacruzwire.com