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Gaviota Coast undergoing new scrutiny

Park possibility

March 8, 2000
By MELINDA BURNS
NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER

The National Park Service will kick off a $150,000 study of the Gaviota Coast later this month with three public scoping meetings in Santa Barbara County.

At these workshops, park planners will gather information about the biological and cultural resources of the coast from Coal Oil Point to Point Sal.

The study of the 75-mile-long coastline, including an area of up to seven miles inland to the mountain ridges, will take about two years. The park will then make a recommendation to Congress as to whether the area merits inclusion in the National Park system. It would take another year for Congress to pass the appropriate legislation.

The Gaviota Coast and Vandenberg Air Force Base are not a pristine wilderness. A freeway and a train track run through the area; two oil and gas processing plants have been built here; and much of the land has been grazed for generations. The base is dotted with launching pads and abandoned missile sites, some of them toxic.

But the Gaviota Coast represents one of the last stretches of undeveloped land on the coast of Southern California. It contains numerous creeks and archaeological sites; and it is a refuge for several endangered species. There are three state beaches and two county beaches along the coast. The mountains above the foothills are in the Los Padres National Forest.

On the coast west of Gaviota, Point Conception marks a transition zone where northern and southern ocean currents converge and the moist, cool climate of Northern California meets the drier, warmer climate of Southern California. In the chaparral, the sandstone, the grasslands and the canyons of this corner of the continent live plants and animals that are, as far as anyone knows, found nowhere else.

"There are some spectacular resources that are in fairly good shape, either because of national forest or state park management or excellent management by private land owners," said Martha Crusius, a Park Service planner. "We would not seek to make it a wilderness. We'll look at those resources to determine whether the area is nationally significant. This part of the country has a mix that does not exist elsewhere in the National Park system. Our job is to determine whether it's worthy."

A national seashore designation would bring federal funding and greater protection for the Gaviota Coast through the outright purchase of property or the purchase of development rights. It would provide greater opportunities for public access to the beach and the mountains.

There are presently 10 national seashores in the country. Point Reyes, with 35 miles of coast, is the only national seashore in the western United States. According to the Park Service, the land near national seashores typically increases in value and there is an increase in the number of visitors to the area, bringing economic benefits to the region.

The Park Service will study the resources at Vandenberg to determine whether the base should be included in the seashore designation, Crusius said. Together with base officials, she said, the Park Service will determine whether the public could have more access to the pristine beaches there.

Along the South Coast west of Coal Oil Point, the Park Service would expect cattle grazing to continue under a national seashore designation just as it has at Point Reyes, Crusius said. The park's policy is to purchase land only from willing sellers.

"We don't condemn land and take it from people," she said.