Saturday, March 31, 2007 | Tom Leech wears a half-dozen different hats, but his favorite is the one he wears when he’s outside. Leech co-wrote the book “Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking and Camping” and used to moderate the online forum feature for San Diego Magazine. In his day job, he coaches businesspeople on creating better presentations and improving their public speaking.

But on the weekends, Leech is outside. In the book, he quizzes people not on their IQ, but on their “OQ” — their outdoors quotient. And this has been a passion for decades. But Leech is still discovering new outdoors spots, and thinks more people should fight to protect parkland.

Leech strolled with voiceofsandiego.org in Presidio Park recently to share his favorite places to go and his sense of the “OQ” of San Diegans throughout the county.

Do you go anywhere in San Diego, as far as being outdoors, that you don’t already know about? Are there still places that you’re still discovering?

Oh, absolutely. Oh, heavens, yes. And, fortunately, some of them are … new acquisitions.

I did a column for San Diego Magazine, it was an online column. … And one of those I wrote was how the nonprofits have been helping San Diego, meaning like the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land … and a lot of specific ones to our area, like San Dieguito River Park, for instance. And what they’ll do is, one, they’ll raise money, and two, they’ll go out and get money. And they went out and bought Bernardo Mountain, which is on the other side of Lake Hodges. And then there’s one really exciting project — the city has hardly bought any true parks in a long time, but they’ve had this [Multiple Species Conservation Plan] with the city and the county … and so they acquired a certain amount of land. So these nonprofits come in and they acquired … 5,000 acres up by Santa Isabel. Now, that’s all new territory — hardly anybody’s been in there yet.

The desert is just loaded — that’s a [600,000]-acre plain. And I’ve covered a certain amount of it, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Oh, it’s fantastic. … What [people in San Diego] do mostly is they’ll go out in the summer to Borrego Springs, and they’ll go to the visitors center, and they’ll go where the flowers are said to be, and that’s wonderful, but that’s about one-fiftieth of the park. I’ve been going out there for 50 years, since I came out here. I’m not a native of this area.

This area is the urban area of San Diego. And prior to that is the coastal area — being the beaches, south to north. Right here now, this is Presidio, Balboa, Mission Trails, Penasquitos, sort of the major urban, what I call the urban parks. And then you keep going, and next is the suburban and foothills, Iron Mountain, they’re very close, up by Poway and that kind of thing. And then we have the mountains, like Cuyamaca, Volcan, Palomar — that’s all the mountains, I think. And then you keep going to the desert.

I don’t think there’s any county in the whole country that can match this range of opportunities of climate differences and environment — and, we can do it in the middle of January.

So, you’ve written a book about being outdoors in San Diego, but there are other books written about being outdoors, right? So where does your book fit into those?

Well, Jerry Schad’s “Afoot and Afield [in San Diego County]” has been sort of the main outdoors book. And I know Jerry, and he’s an excellent scientist and a writer and an outdoors person. I’m more of a writer and an outdoors person. He’s got the good science and all that kind of stuff. I have long enjoyed it.

And, being a writer, also, I think the difference in our book, as people have told me, is that our book is a lot of fun, and we provide a lot of history, quizzes, to make it more interesting to people who haven’t been hiking yet, people who would like to but don’t know where to go. Jerry Schad’s book, if you’re already a hiker, you want to get that book. And mine covers the gamut — by the way, we have hiking and biking and camping, all in one book. That’s a very important distinction. It’s the only one, I think, that has all three in the one book. So, you really get a look-see at the outdoors.

Jack Farnan is my co-author, and he’s like me — we both have our weekday hats. … He’s the vice president of human resources at Mitchell International, here in San Diego. But he’s a super bicyclist and a world adventurer and outdoors person. …

One of the things we like to do is … Jack, for instance, will tell you, “You know, there’s a wonderful little coffee shop with a view as you’re on this trail,” or “Look for this historical statue as you’re riding around Shelter Island,” so we’ve put a lot of that kind of stuff in. So it’s not just, “OK, walk 100 feet this way and turn left.” And I think you’ll find that that’s a big, big difference.

Do you think that this is vastly undiscovered for most people who live here?

Yes, and I say that for several reasons. One is, when I have talked with different groups, and a lot of them just don’t get out that much. They don’t know the different options they have. …

You arrive out here and this place baffles you, almost. … I do talks on this sort of thing, and I get people asking me, “Where else can I go? I live in Clairemont and I go to San Clemente Canyon and Torrey Pines State Reserve and where else can I go?” Well, in this book there are 167 different hikes you can take. …

The other reason I say that is, there are some parks where you’ll see a lot of hikers. Torrey Pines State Reserve. Iron Mountain. Mission Trails. Oh, Cowles Mountain — and, by the way, hardly anybody knows how to pronounce “Cowles.” It’s “Coles,” not “Cow-les.” That’s one of my little quizzes.

So, those are popular. But then, I hike a lot with groups, and I always recommend hiking with groups as much as possible. It’s a good way to get to know the area. And we’ll hike for three hours, four hours, in the Lagunas, Cuyamacas. And we’ll run into six people. And it’s an hour away, and one of the most beautiful areas in the county. And where are all of the people? They’re not getting out. They’re not really enjoying this incredible opportunity that we’ve got here.

Why do you think that is?

It may be because life is good. People do a lot of other outdoors things. There’s a lot of walkers and runners, joggers, tennis players, boaters and all that kind of stuff. I think maybe it’s also that there’s too many options. Balboa Park is so wonderful and so we’ll go outdoors and spend a Sunday in Balboa Park and that takes care of our outdoors for the week or something. And, well, it’s part of it, it’s a wonderful thing we have, but it’s not quite like taking a hike three or four miles in Penasquitas or something like that. I think the other thing is television, Web sites, too much time with e-mail, and even commuting — the congestion has gotten so bad now, compared to when I started hiking 40, 50 years ago when I got here. I think people are worn out by the time they get home at night.

You were saying that you weren’t born in San Diego. Where were you born, and how did you end up here?

I was born and raised in Indiana. Went to college, got a degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue — who just lost in the (NCAA basketball) tournament. … And I came out to work in the aerospace industry here, with General Dynamics, which was a power house at that time. I worked there for 20 years, basically on the launch vehicles. … That’s what brought me here — this was such a hotbed. And I stayed. GD left, and I stayed. …

So, from there you became a writer?

I’d started earlier, and was a freelancer for San Diego Magazine. … Then I became … a business writer and that became a specialty of mine. So, I’d been freelancing for years and I started researching and writing for my first book, on public speaking and presentations. … I taught, also, at National University, and eventually left [General Dynamics] to start my own consulting company. …

So do you see these parts of your life as being separate? I mean, how does business, writing, being outside, being an engineer — how does that all tie together?

Well, being an engineer really faded away, because they put me into marketing. … That led me to being a coach and a seminar leader for presentations, and that’s what I do now, this many years later. The outdoors is just always an interest of mine, and it’s one I enjoy the heck out of. I had a daughter, and one of our favorite activities — I always felt it was very important to get her outdoors — so, she and her chums would sometimes go along on our camping that we would do, either in the desert or wherever, even Baja, some of that. …

And that’s really important, right? Especially as this research is coming out about childhood obesity and that kind of thing — what value does being outside add to kids’ lives?

Oh, I think it’s incredibly important. One, it gives them an awareness of the value of the outdoors world and nature and the importance of supporting that. By the way, I’ve long had an ulterior motive — I like to get people to support parks, and nature, the preservation —

With their votes and their money and that kind of thing?

Yes, through nature groups and that kind of thing. It’s interesting. We would take a friend of my daughters, and they were maybe 8 or 9 years old. And we did this with others, too. And the kids were awkward at first — ‘What do you mean? Where do I go to the bathroom?’ — that kind of thing. They weren’t good hikers or rock-climbers. But by the end of Day 1 or Day 2, they were climbing around, and it changed their whole awareness and capability and comfort. … Then their eagerness increased. Rather than, ‘Do I have to do this?’ it was ‘When are we going to do it again? When are we going to do it again?’ …

What does it do for people who do find a way to spend more time outside? What do you think that does for, maybe, their understanding of how society should work in relation to the environment?

I think they can see the value that this is a very over-stressed world we live in nowadays, and again, back to congestion and that kind of stuff. And to be able to go out and spend an hour or two in Presidio Park or Mission Hills or Cuyamaca, it’s very re-energizing. I would say it can be, and it’s a stress-reduction activity, and you really get an appreciation. … You can identify flowers that you see now, perhaps, or maybe birds. Or I always suggest people, if they’re going to see Cuyamaca or something, get one of those little pamphlets or something they have at the visitors center. That way you can get more appreciation for nature.

Do you have any anecdotes about the danger that can go along with hiking or biking?

Oh yeah, and that’s why — and you can always hike alone here (at Presidio Park) because it’s popular and there’s people and everything — but when you do anything that’s a little off-trail or something, go with a group. … Boy, that can sure happen. The desert can be really tricky. It gets hot.

Here’s an example — a few years ago, they were running the X-Games. … And they started in San Felipe in June. Half the people didn’t even have a hat. They had the wrong shoes. They had to helicopter out one person who got heatstroke. And people didn’t have enough water. And I thought, “My goodness — these are people who are used to adverse conditions — why didn’t they find out?’”

Here’s another: Sunday (March 18) it was 100 degrees in Anza-Borrega. But it was not that at all here. People need to be aware of that kind of stuff, be aware of what they need to have in order to go. … Have good shoes, a hat, plenty of water, sunscreen.

What are the biggest threats to parkland in San Diego?

We need to be vigilant — “This should be a park. We need more parkland.” Watch the encroachments. The developments are coming right up to the parkland. …

One is the Border Field, which hardly anybody goes to. It’s lovely, historical. You’re right at the ocean, the border, there’s a statue there saying this is where the border was declared, the bullfight ring is right there, so you get these different cultures. And you get the border fence, which is a possibility. … If they put these three fences in, which is what they’re talking about to keep the immigration out, there goes Border Park, which would be a criminal act, for my money. That should not be allowed. So, that’s Border Park, a very likely intrusion of that dang border fence. I don’t know what the answer is but that’s horrible. …

Well, what’s your favorite place to hike, maybe when you’re not in the mood to discover something new? You want to do something you’ve done before?

Good ol’ reliable is Torrey Pines State Reserve. It’s so easy to get to, it combines the ocean, the bluffs above, some beautiful hillsides, and in June there’s a lot of nice flowers out there. Here’s another example though, see — it’s very popular … but not too many people have ever heard of the Torrey Pines Extension. … Almost none (of the people I talk to) have ever been there. And yet, there’s a whole extension that was preserved, so right in that south suburb of Del Mar is a wonderful extension, and you can hike all over there, too. But not too many people knew about it.

And a favorite local peak is Iron Mountain. There’s a variety of environments, you get a great view once you’re up there, so those are a couple of examples.

(Clarification: The original transcription of this story incorrectly referred to San Dieguito River Park as San Diego River Park and said Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was 6,000 acres. We apologize for the error.)

— Interview conducted by KELLY BENNETT

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