Is it a priceless Tuolumne County resource open to all?

Or is it a long, narrow chain of private properties that can be closed off at the whim of any of dozens of owners?

At issue is a trail along PG&E's Main Canal, a scenic stretch of ditch running from Lyons Reservoir to the Phoenix Penstock off Old Oak Ranch Road.

This meandering, 12.7-mile channel carries water from Lyons to a network of smaller ditches serving thousands of Tuolumne Utilities District water customers. Its path, although running through private property, has for decades been enjoyed by joggers, bicyclists and anglers.

But more than a month ago, a Mt. Elizabeth Drive couple put up fences and a superstructure for gates next to the ditch. Karl and Carol Laier then posted signs declaring that their stretch of trail is private and that the right to pass through can be revoked.

That the Laiers have also closed off the path several times while clearing brush in the ditch area has rekindled a long-dormant access debate. Next-door neighbor Brian Ferrell has launched a petition campaign aimed at having the entire trail declared permanently open to the public.

Meanwhile, ditch-side tensions are on the rise.

"Caution! Sociopathic Paranoid and Control-Challenged People Ahead," read a hand-lettered sign the Laiers found on the ditch path earlier this month.

They called the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department, showed a deputy the sign and named Ferrell as a suspect. Ferrell said he had nothing to do with it.

It wasn't the first time officers have been called: In March, a hiker reported that Laier had pulled a gun on him.

"I thought he was going to push my wife down an embankment," said Laier, adding that the pistol was unloaded and "has never been fired." No charges were filed in connection with the incident.

But why would the Laiers, who have owned the 10-acre property since 1975 and have lived on it since the mid-1990s, put up fences and signs now?

"It's the unleashed dogs," said Karl Laier. "There's a lot more of them along the ditch these days, and their owners just don't seem to care about the law. We don't want to be bitten or killed. We don't want to end up like that woman in San Francisco, Diane Whipple (mauled to death by dogs in an apartment building)."