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Closing the Good Guys' Trail

October 18, 1998|ROBERT A. JONES

"Everybody knows the dice are loaded. Everybody knows the good guys lost. That's how it goes. Everybody knows."

Those lines come from Leonard Cohen's famous song about modern life. And though I don't know what inspired Cohen, the lines often make me think of Los Angeles.

Take the case of the horse people. For 50 years the riders from the Rancho neighborhood in Burbank--and there are many of them--have used the trails along the Los Angeles River. You simply took your horse to the end of Mariposa or Buena Vista street and turned onto the well-worn path.

Understand, these trails hardly resemble something from, say, "National Velvet." Fifty years ago, sure, they were great. The river wove through the valley, willows growing along its banks. So peaceful was the scene, some early Westerns were shot there.

No more, though. After the war, the river was converted into a gigantic concrete ditch, with vertical walls 30 feet high. Then, in the early 1960s,the Ventura Freeway got laid down along the river, lending its roar and vapors to the ambience.

The horse people persisted in spite of all that. Almost pathetically they would ride along the ditch, trying to ignore the noise, pretending that the river still meandered along its banks. Year after year they kept it up, without complaint.

After all, that's how it works here, right? Either you adjust or you go crazy. Everybody knows.

But, in this case, the adjustment wasn't enough. As described by Times reporter Andrew Blankstein, the riders arrived at the trail entrances two weeks ago to find signs saying, "U.S. Property No Trespassing."

Why? Because one of the regular riders had asked the Army Corps of Engineers--which manages this portion of the river--to repair or replace a broken stretch of fence along the river.

The complainer was Joan Green, an old-timer who has been riding the trails almost since the beginning of the tradition. She wasn't asking for a huge stretch of fence. Only about 800 feet of chain link.

"The fence is supposed to keep people from falling over the vertical wall of the river," Green says. "But it only comes up to your waist. It won't stop anybody from falling over, particularly if you're on a horse."

Nonetheless the corps said no. Green then complained to the city of Burbank, which agreed with her and sent a letter of its own saying the fence constituted a hazard.

That was enough for the corps. After allowing riders to use the river for 50 years, the agency decided to shut them out. Unless Burbank would fix the fence itself and assume all future liability for the trails, the corps said, it would not only post "No Trespassing" signs but seal off the entrances.

The response can't help but remind you of Caltrans' decision to paint over parts of the Olympic murals along the Santa Ana Freeway after motorists complained about graffiti on them. Somehow, a simple problem gets twisted into something Frankensteinian.

Ted Masigat, the operations officer who made the decision for the corps, concedes that the fence belongs to the corps and sits on land managed by the corps. He also concedes that fixing the fence would not cost a great deal of money for an agency that spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year in the Los Angeles area.

Still, the agency won't fix the fence. Whatever it costs, it's too much, Masigat says. That's because the corps' job is to manage the river, not to protect horse riders.

"Technically, the horse riders have been trespassing for many years," Masigat says. "We didn't mind that until Burbank raised the issue of us being responsible for the fence and injuries and so on."

But wasn't the corps responsible for injuries on its lands before Burbank sent the letter?

Yes, concedes Masigat.

And, in the 50 years of horse trail use, has the corps ever received a damage claim from a horse rider?

Not to his knowledge, concedes Masigat.

Nonetheless, he says, the corps must protect itself. Now that Burbank has "raised" the issue, the corps will shut out the riders unless Burbank takes on the burden, fixes the fence and assumes all liability.

I suppose we should not be surprised at an agency protecting its own interests over those of the people it allegedly serves. Still, it's educational to witness the exercise carried out so baldly.

For its part, Burbank is trying to work things out. Ted McConkey, a City Council member, says the city is looking into the costs and may be willing to take on the liability.

"If the trail closes, the horse riders will be forced out onto city streets like Riverside Drive," he says. "That's much more dangerous than the trails."

McConkey says the riders may have earned what is known as "prescriptive" rights to the trails as a result of their decades of use. Prescriptive rights are earned when landowners allow public use of their lands and fail to take steps to prevent it.

But no one knows whether such rights pertain to this case. If they don't, McConkey says, the corps will likely succeed in shutting down the horse trails or shifting the costs to the city.

So, in the end, the horse riders may win back their rights to ride next to the concrete ditch, listening to the tune of the freeway. Or they may not. Either way, it doesn't much matter to the Army Corps of Engineers. Because the corps, above all, must be protected.

That's how it goes. Everybody knows.

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