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Gaviota coast is focus of new plan

Interest is rising in saving 45 miles from Coal Oil Point to Point Arguello.


Mary Nichols, the state Secretary for Resources, will speak in Santa Barbara tonight in support of the fledgling efforts to preserve the scenic Gaviota coast.

"As a Southern California resident, I have a personal commitment to this area," Nichols said in a telephone interview Thursday from her Los Angeles home. "The combination of the oceans and the mountains and the ranching landscape is unmatched anywhere else. Because of its size and ruggedness, and because it was being maintained by large landowners, and even, in an odd way, because of the oil presence there, the coast is quite pristine. It has not changed much in 50 years."

Saving the Gaviota coast is a high priority in light of the urbanization that threatens to engulf California, Nichols said.

"We don't have a decade, and in many instances we may not have five years," she said. "We're trying to make sure that we do our part to lock up areas of significant importance so that they will be off-limits to growth. We recognize that growth will occur, but we want to make sure that it does not destroy the quality of life that people hold so dear."

Nichols will speak at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History at 7 p.m. in an event co-sponsored by the Sierra Club and the Gaviota Coast Conservancy.The evening will include a slide show and presentations by Mike Lunsford, the conservancy president; Wayne Ferren, a UCSB botanist; John Johnson, the museum's curator of anthropology; Jennifer Caselle, a UCSB marine biologist;and Mike McGinnis, a UCSB oceans researcher.

For several years, the local conservancy has been working with the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County and the Environmental Defense Center to find ways to save the 45-mile stretch of coast between Coal Oil Point and Point Arguello, from the mountain ridges to the beach. Much of the land is currently in private cattle and avocado ranches, and many properties are family owned. Several oil giants, including Chevron, Texaco, Exxon and Arco own large holdings.

In September, the environmental groups announced their first successful conservation deal -- the $990,000 purchase of development rights on the Freeman Ranch, just north of Refugio State Beach. At least $600,000 of the total funding will come from state agencies, including the Resources Agency that Nichols presides over. The 660-acre Freeman Ranch is being viewed as a preservation model for the coast because the owners will stay in ranching and the property will never be developed.

Meanwhile, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, is pressing Congress to fund a study to determine whether the Gaviota coast would qualify as a national seashore, a designation that would help free up funds for preservation.

Mark Massara, a Sierra Club attorney, said that his organization has joined with the local groups not to interfere with private property rights or disturb the status quo on the coast, but rather to preserve the present uses of the land.

"What we're concerned about is resort development, residential sprawl and the conversion of agricultural land to golf courses," Massara said. "We've just embraced this whole effort because we're sick and tired of fighting over every ranch out there."

For an example of what could occur on the coast if no preservation action is taken, the public has only to look at Winchester Commons, a tract of more than 100 stucco homes at the western edge of Goleta; and the 400-room Bacara Resort & Spa, now under construction west of Coal Oil Point.

Just west of the resort, on land that is zoned for agriculture and owned by Arco, a golf course proposal is awaiting a vote by the State Coastal Commission. Next door, the Morehart family has been in negotiations with the county for six years, seeking the right to build several hundred homes on land zoned for farming.

Nichols was appointed to her post a year ago by Gov. Gray Davis. She oversees 19 state departments, commissions and boards, including the Department of Fish and Game and the Coastal Commission. Back in the 1970s, Nichols was one of the first environmental lawyers in California. She was appointed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown as an attorney to the California Air Resources Board; and she later served as an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmentalist organization.

In 1993, Nichols was nominated by President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate to be the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for air and radiation.

Nichols and state Coastal Commissioner Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara will take an aerial tour of the Gaviota coast this morning. As part of her remarks tonight, Nichols said, she will urge people to vote for Propositions 12 and 13, two bond measures on the March ballot. Proposition 12 provides $2.1 billion for neighborhood parks, state parks, coastal access and open space. Proposition 13 provides $2 billion for safe drinking water and coastal and stream protection.

It will take still more money to save places like the Gaviota coast, Nichols said.

"These bonds can't make up for more than a decade of neglect of state and local parks," she said. "The Gaviota coast will be a statewide priority, but there are many other communities who are working to preserve land that is important to them as well. It's clearly an expensive proposition."