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Parks team ends facet of Gaviota coast study

Park possibility

July 28, 2000


U.S. Park Service emissaries closed their notebooks Thursday after months of public meetings around the county to help them decide if the scenic Gaviota coast merits federal protection, possibly as a 75-mile-long National Seashore.

With pledges to return in about nine months with a draft proposal, the Park Service team leaves behind anxious local interest groups.

There are hopeful environmentalists who want strong federal protections against the seemingly implacable march of development up the Southern California coast.

"We have to do something different than our brethren to the south," said Michael Lunsford, of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy.

There are uneasy Gaviota coast ranchers who fear losing their property and their way of life to federal regulators.

Until the Park Service plan is unveiled, "we're down Alice In Wonderland's rabbit hole, and where we wind up we're not really sure," said Lanny Stableford, a Gaviota Coast rancher.

One thing has become clear, Stableford said. "With or without National Seashore status, our lives will be forever altered from this experience. There will be more scrutiny on all activities along the coast from now on. It will never be the same."

The Park Service effort here was funded under legislation by U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara at the urging of a private group, the Gaviota Coast Conservancy. Strong backing is coming from the city of Santa Barbara, the county, and various conservation agencies and groups.

The area under study goes from Coal Oil Point in Goleta to Pt. Sal near Guadalupe, and inland up to seven miles. It is one of the last unspoiled stretches of coast in Southern California, is home to several endangered species, and fronts an area of sea famous for its varied marine life. About half of the area is owned by ranchers and farmers. Much of the rest is part of Vandenberg Air Force Base. It includes the county's largest landfill, and two oil and gas facilities.

The Park Service plans to draft a proposal of management rules with alternatives, and present it in Santa Barbara during public hearings late next spring, said Ray Murray, the leader of the Park Service's Gaviota coast study team.

The plan will spring from information collected here in recent months on the need to protect rare and endangered species, the recreation access needs of the region's exploding population, and the needs of coast landowners.

In "a further stretch" of Park Service practices than usual, Murray said, the plan will likely contain a clause to preserve local agriculture because coast ranchers have done " a pretty good job" of protecting the land.

But the key to saving the coast, he said, is outright federal acquisition of land or protective easements "by willing sellers" in concert with similar state and private groups.

The proposal could take the form of a request for a National Seashore designation, the most restrictive under consideration. But the plan could fit the mold set by a lesser level of federal land management, such as a preserve or reserve.

As a National Seashore, the coast would be under Park Service management, and eligible for federal appropriations for acquisitions. The Park Service would also "become a presence" in county considerations of all private development proposed on the coast, Murray said.

Controversies over the Gaviota coast's future are sure to spark anew when the Park Service presents its draft plan.

"We underestimated the passions and polarity and range of interest groups here," Murray told about 30 people representing varied interests at a final group information session Thursday in Vista De Las Cruces School near Gaviota State Park.

Farmers, who saw the Park Service shut down a private ranch on Santa Rosa Island recently, said they don't trust federal promises that they won't be squeezed out by new regulations. Protecting the coast's agriculture operations will be enough to preserve the coast, said Rick Shade, a farmers' representative. "Our vision does not include the presence of federal agencies."

Even conservationists seeking National Seashore status have some trepidations about the Park Service and its track record of controlling recreation.

"We want access maintained so it doesn't degrade the ecological integrity (of the coast) people don't trample all over the land like we see in Yosemite," said Erin Duffy of the Sierra Club.