NEAR TEHACHAPI PEAK -- Footprints in the snow made it pretty clear last week that someone continues to trespass on the Wyman family's land atop Tehachapi Mountain.
Ordinarily that might not raise an eyebrow. Hikers have long tramped through the property on their way to Tehachapi Peak, a nearly 8,000-foot summit said to offer sweeping views of the Mojave Desert, Central Valley and the southern Sierra Nevada.
But last year the Wymans tried to put a stop to that. Citing safety and security concerns, they posted a fresh "no trespassing" sign and stretched a thick metal cable between two pine trees in an attempt to close a roughly quarter-mile private section of an otherwise public trail up the mountain.
That set off a controversy in nearby Tehachapi, with some calling it retaliation for the community's opposition to what could have been a lucrative wind farm on the Wymans' property. Others accused the family of sacrificing public enjoyment of the trail for the sake of private hunting, camping and other income-generating activities.
County officials intervened on hikers' behalf and tried to negotiate a public easement, to no avail. Now people including a county parks commissioner say litigation may offer the best chance of restoring free access, even as no one appears to have definite plans for legal action.
Lawyers who specialize in easements say such a lawsuit offers no guarantees, and that it would likely hinge on a subject dear to many hearts in Kern County: private property rights.
"That's one of the (nation's) founding principles," said county Supervisor Zack Scrivner, who represents the area. "In this case, you have a property owner that's wanting to restrict access to their property, and I believe it's within their rights to do so, however unfortunate it may be to the recreational community."
The Wyman family's best-known member, former state Assemblyman Phil Wyman, insists that last year's crackdown on trespassing was not punitive. He said the family, which has owned the land since the 1880s, simply cannot permit strangers to come and go as they please, especially when there are potentially dangerous activities going on at the property, like hunting and logging.
One day he would like to see more people use the land -- but not through the "bootleg trail" he said they have been using. He told of plans to develop the land for a variety of recreational options, from skiing to equestrian activities.
In the meantime, Wyman said he worries about vandalism and unwelcome interruptions to church groups, Native American basket weavers and other guests of the family's private campgrounds on the mountain.
"We just can't have people coming in there unknown," he said.
Nearby residents, some of whom say they have hiked the trail for many years, speak of the Wymans' recent actions as a tangible loss to the community.
Tehachapi teacher and outdoors blogger Christy Rosander said she has long used the trail to introduce children to hiking.
"For me this mountain is not just a climb, but a lifestyle," she wrote on her blog, named Lady on a Rock.
The chairman of the city's tourism commission and president of the Tehachapi Heritage League, Charles White, said he hopes the two sides come together to preserve one of te community's attractions.
"We would love to see it as one of the amenities that we offer in Tehachapi -- not only for tourists but for local people," he said.
County Parks and Recreation Commissioner Carl Park said the Wymans' actions are justified. And even with the final section closed, he said, the trail makes a great training hike, and it offers beautiful scenery and vistas.
But as a veteran hiker who likes to take on Mount Whitney and the Grand Canyon, Parks said he prefer to see the family open access to the summit.
"As much as I respect Mr. Wyman, if somebody wanted to get a court action going, I'd support it and contribute money to it," he said.
Members of the Tehachapi Mountain Trails Association are talking about doing just that, though executive officer Trent Theriault said nothing has been decided.
Lawyers with experience in easements and private property rights say a case could be made that hikers have already established public access to the trail, but that it wouldn't necessarily be easy to win in court.
If a plaintiff can show that a person has continued to use the trail for more than five years, then access could be declared through what is known as "prescriptive easement," Bakersfield lawyer Jean Pledger wrote in an email.
But she noted that several conditions must be met.
"Suffice it to say that it would be difficult for an individual to establish an easement for such recreational use," she wrote, "but not impossible.
Bakersfield lawyer Scott Perlman said the plaintiff might have to show that the five years of continuous use took place before a state law passed in about 1970, strengthening property owners' rights.
Also, it may not be enough simply to post a no-trespassing sign on the property. Perlman and San Fernando Valley lawyer Tamila Jensen said it has to be enforced.
A better idea would have been to put up a sign granting individuals access, which Perlman and Jensen said implies that the property owner maintains control.
"There are ways an owner can post signs to prevent an adverse taking," as an establishment of a public easement is sometimes known, Perlman said.
(The only property sign visible Thursday where the public trail ends states "Park Boundry / Private Property Ahead." Wyman said the family has posted no-trespassing sign regularly but that they have been removed by unauthorized visitors.)
Theriault, the trails association officer, said he doesn't want the conflict to end up in court, and that he doesn't like the idea of trying to take private land.
"I was just hoping," he said, "that we could come to some sort of understanding."