Suddenly, on a wilderness trail above Thousand Oaks Saturday, the Conejo Open Space Volunteer Patrol came to an abrupt halt.
"See this?" patrol leader Winn Darden asked. With a stern index finger, he pointed to a piece of orange peel, no bigger than a silver dollar, lying in the path.
"This really upsets me," he snapped, shaking his head in disgust. "This is a desert climate and orange peels don't decompose. I've seen an orange peel out here once that was more than 3 years old.
"This is one of my pet peeves--to get people to stop dumping food waste."
With that, he turned and walked away. Another volunteer casually picked up the peel and tossed it out of sight.
Not exactly what Darden had in mind, but then again his patrol was still in training.
Starting next weekend, Darden and his disciples will launch a new program to preserve the pristine nature of the area's rugged trails, where hundreds of hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers roam every weekend.
Armed with two-way radios, first-aid kits and official Volunteer Ranger T-shirts, the patrol will hit the trails looking for litterers, fire-starters, flower-stompers and other nature-wreckers.
Although patrol members won't be able to issue citations, "they will be our eyes and ears," said Ranger Doug Tait of the Conejo Recreation and Parks District.
"There are only four of us to look after 8,000 acres of open space, so obviously we need help."
On Saturday, Darden led eight volunteers in a training session during a four-mile hike. Except for the orange-peel incident--and the time a volunteer strayed a few inches from the trail and stepped on some wild grass--all were on their best behavior.
Darden, a Texaco salesman and veteran hiker, said the foot patrol will be the ideal complement to the mountain bike and horseback volunteer patrols that already strive to ensure environmentally correct behavior in the wilderness.
"It's kind of tough to flag somebody down when you're zipping by on a bike," he said. "A hiker patrol is more user-friendly."
Darden said that he envisions a group of 30 to 40 volunteers who will spend about eight hours a month on weekend hike patrols.
The key to success, Darden stressed to his recruits Saturday, is to be positive. Give a good impression. Offer friendly guidance, not a scolding, when you see people do something destructive--say, walking off the trail to get a closer look at a stream, or unleashing a dog in the middle of the wilderness.
During a break in the expedition, patrol volunteer Rusty Geller offered his fellow hikers some advice.
"Don't argue with people," said Geller, a Hollywood cameraman with years of experience as a volunteer mountain bike patrolman. "Show them your radio--it's as good as a gun. When people see the radio, they get the impression that you are connected to a law enforcement organization."
Brian Pospisil listened carefully. A mall security guard who hopes to enter the county police academy, Pospisil said he volunteered for the patrol because he didn't like what people have been doing to his park.
In his army boots and camouflage pants, Pospisil seemed ready to do the job. But he confessed to what some nature lovers consider a sin.
"Don't tell the rest, but I'm a hunter," he whispered to a fellow volunteer.
Midway through a hill climb, nurse Barbara Owens was huffing and puffing. "I don't like hiking," she said. "I'm just here because I want to give something back to my community."
Trailing the group by some 20 yards was retired anthropologist Tom Maxwell, who during the hike photographed and jotted down the names of more than 60 wild plants in bloom.
"See this fiddlewood plant? Look at the flower. It curls like the top of a violin. That's where it got the name."
The tiny white flower was beautiful, but none of the patrol members examined it. They were busy looking for beer cans.