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GUARDING GAVIOTA The Race to Save Our Rural Coast from Urban Sprawl

11/18/99 By Keith Hamm
THE INDEPENDENT

Someday soon, while the cement is still wet and the sawdust is still hanging in the air, take a drive through Goleta the Good Land. Once a creek-fed agricultural plain laced deeply with the tidal channels of a vast wetland, Goleta is now an urban world on the move. Densely built subdivisions roll roughshod over open space and threaten the few remaining family farms. Nearly 20,000 college students jampack the bluffs at an ever expanding UC Santa Barbara. Bigbox retail outlets share freshly paved crossroads with parking lots andstrip malls. Commercial flights launch and land a frog's leap away from what's left of Goleta Slough. And construction crews apply finishing touches to the 400-room Bacara Resort and Spa at Haskell's Beach. As it all comes into view, you begin to understand tile fear of those who are watching Goleta become the next wood and cement appendage of Greater Los Angeles. You begin to understand why their voices carry a bitter pain as they refer to their home town as Goleta the Growth Land.

Now bank back onto Highway 101, drive west past Winchester Canyon, and leave Goleta behind. Enter a world where tract homes, big boxes, even your automobile, seem out of place. Welcome to the Gaviota Coast, a rural realm that hasn't changed much during the past couple hundred years. Along roughly 35 miles of Southern California sea coast from Ellwood Shores to Point Conception, mountains and seascapes dominate the view. Red-tailed hawks hunt from old telephone poles. Cattle graze in the shadows of oaks. Surfers scratch for cold-water waves lifted by canyon winds. The most conspicuous sign of human settlement is the occasional ranch house, corral, and barn. Large-scale development, for the most part, has yet to arrive.

The Gaviota Coast is the homeland of Elizabeth Erro Hvolboll. Born at St. FrancisHospital in 1930, Hvolboll grew up in a 40-foot by 20-foot one-story redwood house overlooking Refugio Beach. As a girl, she and her two older sisters and mother would pile into the family wagon each Saturday and head to Coffey's grocery store in Goleta for flour, salt, sugar, and other provisions. (Their milk and butter came from the cows back home.) In those days, Hvolboll remembered, Goleta was a valley filled with acres and acres of lima beans with lemon and walnut trees surrounding two small outposts of civilization: one at the intersection of Hollister and Fairview avenues, where Coffey's stood near the blacksmith shop and the post office: the other centered around Patterson Avenue, anchored by a schoolhouse and the community center. Over the past 60 years, Hvolboll has watched Goleta's dramatic transformation. "I don't know if you'd call itgrowing up," she said, "but Goleta certainly grew."

Goleta is still growing, tile current boom aided and abetted by economic high times, the recent arrival of state water, and the lack of a comprehensive political framework. Goleta has been called the largest unincorporated area west of the Mississippi, yet its planning and development is governed by the county's five-member Board of Supervisors, only one of whom represents Goleta. With each election, another page is added to the history of Goleta's fluctuating tug-of-war between slow-growth and pro-growth factions.

But even now, when the political advantage rests with a slow-growth majority, Goleta is bound to grow denser along its central corridors. Along its outskirts, Goleta sprawls,lapping into the foothills like a rising tide and slowly spilling west out toward the Gaviota coast, toward all that open land rolling off to the horizon between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the blue Pacific. This makes Hvolboll nervous. 'I’ve thought for years--ever since the '60s---that development out to Ellwood would be all right," she said. "But past there, no."

She's not alone. Others share her alarm. And an unusual, perhaps unprecedented,congregation of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, attorneys, politicians, even a few developers have started organizing. Their backgrounds, motives, and preservation aspirations may differ, but they are all marshaling their forces for one purpose: to guard Gaviota.

And big things are starting to happen. Last Friday night at the Museum of Natural History, Mary Nichols, California's secretary of natural resources, told a standing room only, 600head crowd (more than 100 had to be turned away, including former 3rd District Supervisor Bill Wallace, one of the county's staunchest slow-growthers) that she supports all efforts to protect the coast. Recently, Refugio rancher Les Freeman voluntarily sold his right to develop his 660 acres to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, inspiring other Gaviota Coast landowners to do the same. The Gaviota Coast Conservancy, a four-year-old environmental group with broad membership, is pushing to have the coast protected under the National Park Service's "National Seashore" designation. The Sierra Club's California chapter has placed the conservation of the Gaviota Coast as its top priority. County planners are holding the line to keep development from breaching western Goleta's official urban boundary line, now drawn at Winchester Canyon.

Environmentalists are on the verge of lobbying for a tax hike to gather money for the purchase and protection of undeveloped land within and without the Goleta Valley. Politicians are echoing their constituents' concerns, scrambling to earmark public funds for the cause. Commercial fishermen have chimed in against development along the coast, fearful of the ocean-polluting run-off that often comes as a consequence of coastal development. There's even talk of extending the boundary of Los Padres National Forest to encompass more Gaviota lands, while extending the jurisdiction of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to the mainland and running it up the coast to Monterey.

Together, these men and women have drawn a line in the sand. But it remains to be seen whether their resolve and cooperation proves stronger than the forces of urban sprawl now aimed like a battering ram at the gateway to the Gaviota Coast.

WHY HERE, WHY NOW? One cool, sunny day this summer I took a drive along the Gaviota Coast with Elizabeth Hvolboll, her husband, Arne Hvolboll, and their 44-year-old son, Eric, a prominent land-use attorney with the Santa Barbara firm Price, Postel & Parma. Our drive swept through the Gaviota Coast's cultural and natural histories, which,in a very real sense, seemed one and the same. To the Hvolbolls, this land is more than wide open spaces or potentially buildable lots. It's more dignified than that--alive with weather and growing seasons, plants and animals, and the vivid memory of the people who have been and will always be infused with this mountainous, maritime stretch of the world.

Heading west from Refugio, talking and driving, Elizabeth and Arne carried me back to 1914 when the original, concrete highway was poured. And then to 1925, when Elizabeth's father, Martin Erro, a descendent of one of Santa Barbara's original Presidio soldiers, planted the pepper tree that now towers above Refugio Beach. (Decades later, when CalTrans moved to ax the pepper tree to make way for a freeway on ramp, the late, great Santa Barbara botanist Cliff Smith told CalTrans that the tree was the biggest of its kind in California and it was spared.) We next caught a glimpse of the late-1800s as we passed J.J. Hollister's adobe house at Arroyo Hondo, the property where the legendary rider and cattleman Vicente Ortega was born in 1885.

Reentering the 20th century around 1930, we briefly revisited several decades of oil'smost prolific era when piers, processing plants and platforms sprang up along the coast, most now abandoned or in decline. Then we pulled off at Mariposa to visit the ghosts of the Portuguese fishermen who sent their children to Vista Del Mar school, which still stands, vacant, next to Gaviota's oil and gas processing plant. Arne remembered his own childhood as we passed Gaviota Creek. "When I was growing up, there were steelhead [trout] by the .. thousands in here---a long train of silver fish," he said. "But that's all melted into the past."

Even from the back seat of a swiftly moving vehicle, I was able to take in the region's natural splendor, where the views open up and the crashing waves blend with the long silence. On a clear day, the four northern Channel Islands--Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel--waver on the southern horizon. To the north, the Santa Ynez Mountains run east-west and climb to 4,298 feet, the length of their territory connecting the southern spurs of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the West Coast's most prominent maritime headland, Point Conception.

For nearly 9,000 years the Gaviota Coast was home to a rich Native American culture, and for several hundred years to Spanish, Mexican, and American settlements. It is also the habitat of mountain lion and deer, sea otter and abalone, peregrine falcon and dusky-footed jack rabbits. In the foothills, Refugio manzanita mixes with purple sage. Higher, Bishop pines share mountainsides with oak groves. Along the coast, endangered tide-water gobies and red-legged flogs swim in waterways with endangered steelhead, while threatened snowy plovers nest on beaches blessed by some the of best waves California surfers have ever carved. Weather mixes the northern cool and wet with the southern warm and dry, giving the region a climate ,all its own, one where endemism flourishes. Natural historians call the region one of the greatest biogeographic transition zones on earth, where northern plants and animals reach their southern limit and southern plants and animals reach their northern border.

It's upon this grand backdrop that the; Hvolbolls have built their lives. Great-grand-daughter of Mercedes Gonzales, whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all, Soldados de Cuera, Elizabeth Hvolboll is a seventh-generation Santa Barbaran, born to Louise MacIntyre and Martin Erro, a lima bean farmer and cattleman. Mercedes Gonzalez married Bruno F. Orella, a Basque who had purchased land from the heirs of Jose Francisco Ortega, the first commandante of Santa Barbara's Presidio and grantee of Rancho Nuestra Senora del Refugio, 26,529.3 acres stretching from Refugio to Cojo, the first land grant in what is now Santa Barbara County.

Home-schooled by her mother, Elizabeth later attended Vista Del Mar alongside 30 other ranch kids, closer to 50 during the walnut picking season. Elizabeth remembered her teacher, Mrs. Hergert, playing piano as she and the class sang songs of early California. Twice a year--graduation and Christmas--the school would host operettas, drawing what could pass for a crowd in those days. After school and on weekends, the kids would explore the foothills and bluffs, or sometimes soak in the sulfur hot springs at sand's edge before plunging into the cold Pacific. From grades 9-12, Elizabeth attended Santa Ynez High School, a 62-mile round trip by bus. It was there, in algebra class, that she met Arne Hvolboll.

A second generation Danish-American born in Solvang in 1928, Arne and his family moved in 1936 to a farm outside Buellton where he spent the rest of his childhood. When he was 15, Arne was foreman of a hay baling crew.

High school sweethearts, Elizabeth and Arne took most of their science classes together, and they attended UCSB, then located on the Riviera. They married in 1950. She graduated in 1951 with a degree in zoology, and he earned a diploma in physics and chemistry. Arne went on to UCLA medical school and in 1960 landed a job at Cottage Hospital as an anesthesiologist. At the time, Elizabeth, a mother of three, was singing at church and civic functions and helping her mother, who had assumed the role of manager at La Paloma Ranch at Cafiada del Venadito, after her father died in 1960.

The Hvolbolls lived in town, but they religiously drove out to their ranch. Elizabeth and Arne, plus Elizabeth's sister Luzena and her husband, Charlie Tautrim, cared for the horses, vaccinated calves, de-horned bulls, fixed fences, and ran the tractor, among other Day-to-day chores. "Between us," remembered Elizabeth, "we were out there every day of the week." They ran as many as 170 head of cattle on roughly 1,400 acres (some of itleased), grew Sudan grass and some barley for feed, and, in 1971, planted seven acres of avocado trees. These days, roughly 45 acres holds avocados, and only 22 head of cattle remain, looked after by Santa Ynez cowboy Ralph Lausten. "Eric calls it the remnant herd," Elizabeth laughed.

These days, Elizabeth and Arne still frequent the ranch, passing through their memories of Goleta on their way out of town. A walnut orchard once stretched off from the Hope Avenue exit all the way up to State Street, they remembered. Now it's an auto center and rows of tightly built pink condominiums. "I don't think we should be planting houses and bragging, 'This is an old place and we really cleaned it up.' 1 don't know of any place that's gotten beautiful by destroying firming," Arne said, launching a civil tirade against all forces that serve to shrink this country's cultivable land. "Farmers hate pink buildings."

And, for the most part, urban environmentalists who have saddled up to protect the Gaviota Coast recognize the truth in Arne's belief: Preserving the Gaviota Coast requires the preservation of farming and ranching, our agricultural heritage, a vital national resource. And in that sense, any effort to preserve the Gaviota Coast must respect the heritage of the nation. Because, after all, in the words of American historian Richard Hofstadter, "America was born in the country."

SURFING FOR A CAUSE: Surfer Bob Keats vividly remembers the day in the spring of 1991 when two community groups he considered the defenders of our rural coast settled a lingering court battle they had waged with the developers fighting to build a 400room destination resort at Haskell's Beach. The Citizens for the Goleta Valley and the Environmental Defense Center had agreed to go away if the developers handed over $5 million for the formation and funding of the Goleta Valley Land Trust. "I was heartbroken," Keats recalled recently. "I thought the battle was going to continue." Today, the project, now called the Bacara Resort and Spa, is just months away from its grand opening.

Keats had been surfing Haskell's since the mid-1960s, when surfers would park right down near the sand and paddle out to catch uncrowded waves. The break improved dramatically, he remembered, after the El Nino storms of 1969 had turned tranquil Tecolote Creek into a raging wash that created wavesculpting sandbars just offshore, producing a fast beach break during medium tides. From the lineup Keats could see the grass-coated coastal bluffs sloping down from the west and east to met the thick eucalyptus groves surrounding the creek, its mouth strewn with twisted, wave-polished driftwood. "I could go on and on about Haskell's," Keats said.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947, Keats first fell in love with wave-tiding as a student at Robert Louis Stevenson prep school in Carmel, where he battled beachbreak on a 9 foot 6-inch Con Colbert foam surfboard with a balsa stringer. Drawn by a brochure picturing waves curling from Campus Point, Keats enrolled at UCSB in 1965 to study English. After class and on weekends he roamed the Gaviota Coast scouting for good breaks. Even after earning a master's degree, Keats stayed in Isla Vista, washing dishes at the Sun and Earth natural food restaurant, where everybody in the kitchen had a college degree but refused to leave town because they "loved being close to all those surf spots."

His first subconscious thought about protecting the Gaviota Coast was probably planted in the summer of 1966 while vacationing with his parents near the nation's first national seashore, Cape Cod. Not only were the waves great at the Cape Cod National Seashore, he remembered, but the whole place was protected and the original homes built inside the boundary were allowed to stay in private hands. (Coincidentally, in the fall of 1967 there was a brief push to establish a national seashore along what is now Hollister Ranch. Santa Barbara real 'estate agent James T. Brady, now retired, had .just brokered the deal between the state and Hollister heirs that created Gaviota State Park. He then successfully lobbied the county Board of Supervisors to support the protection of nearly eight miles of oceanfront: Hollister Ranch land running from beach to ridge. "We sure didn't want any more oil [development] or anything else," Brady remembered. "We could have done it for $7 million." As he began organizing to have President Johnson flown over the land, the effort "just fell apart," he said, citing a lack of federal funding and a lack of interest from Hollister Ranch landowners.)

About 10 years later, Keats was resting on the beach at Haskell's, basking in the sun. "I was surfed out and in that wonderful state of mind," he said, "and I just gazed up the coast and thought it would be a great place for a national seashore." But with a full plate of surfing, working, and looking for a teaching job, Keats didn't take on the long-term commitment required to launch a Gaviota National Seashore campaign. Besides, he recalled, he didn't think there were any threats to the coast at that time. Keats soon landed jobs teaching freshman composition and creative writing at Santa Barbara City College, UCSB, and Ventura's community college, work that kept him busy until 1984. Then it all came to a screeching halt when he fell ill with mixed connective tissue disease, a form of arthritis that left him chronically weak, hypersensitive to sunshine, and aching from every joint in his body.

Keats had to drop everything. No teaching. No songwriting. No surfing. No more thoughts of drumming up interest to preserve Gaviota lands as an undeveloped gem of coastal Southern California. Life became slow-paced, painful, and cautious. When Western medicine failed to help, he switched to a holistic program of yoga, food supplements, bee venom, regular physical therapy, and lots of rest. For years he rode a painful roller coaster of bodily disintegration and convalescence, until his health began to stabilize in 1991. Around that time he learned that the Cape Cod vacation home where he had spent the summer of '66 surfing the protected coastline had been leveled by a strip mall. Unfortunately, that beach home had rested outside the park's boundary. Then came the Haskell's court settlement, clearing the way for the development of one of his favorite spots on earth.

"I went up to Haskell's to say a private good-bye," Keats remembered. "But when I got to the beach, I just couldn't do it. I decided that I was going to start a last ditch effort to save the land.

It turns out that Keats was too late to pull the plug on Bacara, but his effort has since spawned a sizable push to save the remainder of the coast. Early on, Keats urged the Sierra Club and Greenpeace to lobby for the preservation of the Gaviota Coast, but, he said, it didn't fit their agendas at the time. When he approached the Surfrider Foundation, however, he was met with enthusiasm. By October 1991, Surfrider, a grassroots tribe of surfers sick of watching the coast grow more developed and polluted by the day, had launched a letter-writing campaign against the hotel at Haskell's. Three months later, Surfrider's Santa Barbara chapter convened a special task force focused on protecting the coast from Haskell's to Naples. In April 1992, Keats launched the South Coast Environmental Alliance, drawing activists from Surfrider, Save Ellwood Shores, the Audubon Society, the Urban Creaks Council, and UCSB. "I knew enough to know that [a national seashore] was a very ambitious idea," Keats said. In fact, the first talks centered on protecting the coast from Ellwood's Sandpiper Golf Course to El Capitan. "I thought,'If we save that, I'll be stoked.'"

Twenty months later the alliance's core players coalesced as the Gaviota Coast Committee; in April 1996 they replaced "Committee" with "Conservancy. "The goal [of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy] is the permanent protection of the natural, agricultural, and open space character of the Gaviota Coast," said Michael Lunsford, who succeeded Keats as the group's president in September. With that in mind, a big part of the conservancy's strategy is to push for the creation of a national seashore across the Greater Gaviota Coast, from lsla Vista's Coal Oil Point to Santa Barbara's northern border near Point Sal, from the ocean's edge to the ridge line of the Santa Ynez Mountain range. But just what is a national seashore, and what does it take to create one?

BRING IN THE FEDS: If Ray Murray's memory serves him, it was about four years ago when the Gaviota Coast Conservancy invited him to a UCSB conference to explain the National Park Service's method for establishing national seashores to a colloquium of major conservation groups, including the Trust for Public Land and a handful of Gaviota landowners. Murray, a chief planner with the Park Service's western regional office, told them that before the service can start drawing lines and posting signs, Congress must authorize what is called a "feasibility study," essentially a list of Gaviota Coast resources, natural and otherwise, plus an analysis of whether they're worthy of protection under the wing of the National Park Service.

On that front, Rep. Lois Capps has submitted a bill to Congress asking for $75,000 in funds to match the conservancy's commitment to launch the study. Everybody knows that $75,000 is chump change for the federal government, but Capp’s request, made in May, has yet to be heard on the House floor. A Capps staffer said Congress has been busy haggling over more pressing budgetary matters, but congressional insiders believe that the legislation will never see the light of day so long as the House's conservative Republican majority remains bent on defeating any spending bill that promotes environmental protection.

A more successful approach may surface directly through the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service's parent agency, which has included the feasibility study within its budget request for next year. "But [Congressional] authorization is the key," Murray said, still awaiting word from Washington.

If and when the Park Service gets the green light to launch its feasibility study, and assuming that the study encourages the establishment of the Gaviota National. Seashore (or perhaps it would be called the Point Conception National Seashore), Murray said that major partnerships would have to be forged between the Park Service and all the government agencies and landowners who operate within whatever boundary is drawn. It's likely some kind of management consortium would evolve, as the Park Service would have to collaborate with the County of Santa Barbara, California State Parks, the National Forest Service, the Coast Guard, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, among other government bodies.

But the true challenge rests in bringing the landowners aboard, mainly the farmers and ranchers who currently live and work on the land. Easier said than done. It's a tough call to say which is more frightening to Gaviota Coast ranchers and farmers: the westward march of urban Goleta or the possibility that their land may someday rest under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Farmers and ranchers fear that another layer of government would carry more rules and regulations. Already the relationship between the agricultural community and county government is civil at best, warlike at worst. In the words of John Baucke, director of external affairs for the Bixby Ranch Company, the relationship is "the worst it's ever been.” The county Farm Bureau's Rich Morgantini raised questions about public access and the Park Service's policies on coyotes and mountain lions, wondering if federal mandates for wildlife protection would restrict a rancher's ability to keep these predators from preying on cattle. "How are we going to deal with that?” Morgantini asked. [We must] keep the options open. It has to be flexible." "The problem," Baucke said, "is that the National Park Service has a very bad reputation, probably self-created with that Vail & Vickers mess."

Few Santa Barbara ranchers will ever forget the tragic closure of Vail & Vickers'century-old cattle ranch on Santa Rosa Island. Vail & Vickers had sold their 54,000acre island to the federal government in 1986 for nearly $30 million so that the Park Service could include it as part of the Channel Islands National Park. At the time, manager Al Vail, one of the most highly respected cattlemen in the county, was told by park officials that his ranching operation was compatible with the goals of the Park Service, and was given 25 years, until 2011, to finish out his days on the island. But an environmental group, represented by Santa Barbara's Environmental Defense Center, sued the Park. Lunsford said he knew that "not everybody is happy with the arrangement at Point Reyes, but we can learn from it and build a model that works for landowners here." Along the Gaviota coast, would the land be managed for agricultural preservation? For open space? For public access? A mix of all of the above? "At this point, I can't say what the formula [would] be," said the park service's Ray Murray.

If and when the line is drawn that designates the national seashore's boundary, it doesn't signal a federal takeover, Lunsford explained. It would merely dub the land "nationally significant" and potentially free up federal funds for purchasing property, if landowners want to sell. "We very rarely use condemnation," Murray said. "Almost all our transactions are voluntary." Added Lunsford: "The land owners don't believe this yet.., but they will not be forced to do what they do not want to do."

At this point, far-sighted speculation is about as close as we can get to the reality of a Gaviota National Seashore. The feasibility study hasn't even been funded. In the meantime,however, county planners have launched their own "Gaviota Coast Resource Study," the first phase of which will inventory all existing studies and distill the information into a single compilation that covers all the South Coast watersheds between western Goleta and Point Conception, including offshore kelp forests. If the timing's right, the county's resource assessment and the fed's feasibility study will feed off each other, covering the coast's ecological backdrop and cultural personality, which blend and move back far beyond the interesting eras occupied by lsla Vista surfers and Elizabeth Hvolboll’s ancestry.

DEEP HISTORY:. Long before land grants and surfboards, the Chumash staked out the Gaviota Coast and offshore Channel Islands. These days, the coast of Santa Barbara County holds some of the oldest, deepest, and best preserved Native American archeological sites in the state. For example, near the mouth of the Santa Ynez River on Vandenberg Air Force Base, which falls within the proposed boundary of the national seashore, rests the remnants of an ancient village, the oldest mainland site in the county. Up the coast near Point Arguello, still within the proposed boundary, lies what's left of the village of Noqto, one of the deepest sites in California, representing at least 8,000 years of prehistory. Better still, Noqto-which translates to "The Eel," after the saltwater eels that can still be spotted lurking in the rocky tidewaters--sits surrounded by a vast stretch of relatively undisturbed habitat. This setting allows archaeologists, including John Johnson of Santa Barbara's Museum of Natural History, to look at the sweep of Chumash history and its major periods of change all within the ecological context of the natural surroundings.

About 5,000 years ago, Johnson said, stressing the importance of Noqto, the coast was home to a species of flightless duck, and the site still holds bones of that extinct bird. Another archeological layer holds bones of tule elk. Pinniped remains show which marine mammals were harvested by Chumash and in what numbers. "These sites are more than just evidence of human culture lifeways," Johnson said. "They're banks of environmental information of marine and terrestrial plants and animals."

These days, Point Conception is considered a rugged, wind-battered corner of California, a remote amphitheater of ecological transition and rarity, and a slightly frightening muse for maritime lore. To the Chumash, Point Conception was no less than the launching pad for a soul's departure to the [and of the Dead. One dialect describes Point Conception as Humqaq, which translates to "The Raven Comes." One story holds that in the supernatural world beyond Point Conception there sat a raven who would peck out the eyes of the souls passing into Shimilaqsha, the Land of the Dead. The village on the point, sometimes called Shisholop, or "In the Mud," was the largest Chumash settlement west of Gaviota Creek.

Elsewhere along the Gaviota Coast, the Chumash left several displays of impressive rock art. A few examples: a site near Jalama Beach holds the only known Chumash representation of a Spanish sailing vessel. Hondo Canyon holds Swordfish Cave--a rare black image on a red background--and Window Cave, where a sun disk petroglyph is illuminated only during the Winter! Solstice when the setting sun Shines through a small,natural opening in the rock wall.

BACK TO THE PRESENT: Gaviota Coast rancher Les Freeman, who runs cattle across 660 bucolic acres rolling along the foothills above Refugio Beach, stands wide of girth, an inch or two shy of six feet tall. He moves in his worn cowboy boots with the momentum of a working man, his ball cap stained with sweat, and his long, gray-laced, raven-colored hair banded back between his shoulders. When I first met him on a cool, afternoon in August, he was wearing a short-sleeved plaid button-down tucked into denim jeans belted by a polished buckle announcing his championship calfbranding performance at a 1981 rodeo. He immediately extended a warm handshake and a broad smile, then we piled into his 1994 Dodge Ram 2500 four-wheel drive for a tour of his ranch. Joining us was Andy Mills, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County's Gaviota Coast project manager. Together they laid out the details of one of the most unique and successful methods of preserving land and perpetuating agricultural heritage: a conservation easement.

Climbing slowly through thistle and harding grass along a pitted dirt road, we leveled off at a high point on the Freeman Ranch. The patchy skies opened up, revealing a seascape encompassing Point Conception to the west, the Oxnard plain to the east, and the Channel Islands on the southern horizon. Far below, families vacationed along the water at Refugio State Beach. We got out and for a moment took in the quiet view from a low outcropping of Vaquero sandstone.

In this case, Mills explained, the conservation easement is essentially a legal agreement between Freeman and the Land Trust that prohibits Freeman from developing his property but leaves the land under his private ownership and allows him to keep ranching or farming. Easements can also be struck between a landowner and government agency, and can be more strict in terms of conservation, or less. Above all, Mills continued, conservation easements are site-specific, tailored to the buyer's wishes and to those of the landowner, who enters the deal voluntarily. The Freeman Easement, as it is called, is the first of its kind in Santa Barbara County.

Here's how the deal went down: In the spring of 1998, Freeman remembers, the Land Trust hosted a few workshops--one on Rancho San Julian, another at the Hollister Ranch--to try and drum up interest in conservation easements. Freeman attended, attentive. As he thought about conservation easements, it seemed to him that selling off his development rights would be a fair way to keep his land in agriculture and at the same time allow him and his brother, James Freeman, to settle their financial straits. When their father passed away two years ago, James Freeman inherited half the ranch, burdening him with inheritance taxes topping $500,000. (Inheriting the other half when their mother passed away in 1979, Les Freeman had already paid his inheritance tax tab, over the years, through a trust set up by his mother.) With James's tax bill due, the brothers were forced to consider splitting the ranch and selling off half. But the land trust's conservation easement "saved things," Les Freeman said. "It came at the right time. So I went to my brother and said, '1 have a way of doing this.'"

A decade earlier, James Freeman had retired from the wholesale beef business and was no longer a cowboy. Les, on the other hand, preferred to stay put and keep running cattle. Les's grown children, 25-year-old Lara and 21-year-old Jared, have also expressed an interest in keeping the land in the family and carrying on the work. '

With the brothers' okay, the Land Trust contracted an outside appraiser to price the land. Given the land's condition, zoning, water supply, agricultural value, and development potential, the appraiser calculated two numbers: one valuing the property without the easement and the other with development restrictions in place. The spread between the two numbers is the "easement value," in this case, roughly $1.5 million. Then the Land Trust made the Freemans an offer based on the easement value and how much funding it could expect to raise in a certain amount of time. (With the IRS breathing down his neck, James Freeman needed the money sooner rather than later.) They negotiated to $990,000.

Among other conditions of the easement, Les agreed never to build feedlots and greenhouses, and to keep his cattle out of the creek. Under county zoning, he is allowed one more house for his ranch hands, if he chooses to build it. The Land Trust takes on the cost and responsibility of visiting the property once a year to determine if Les is living up to his end of the deal. With most the details worked out, they shook hands all around. All sides win: From a conglomeration of grants and private donations gathered by the Land Trust, the Freemans are paid nearly $1 million; the trust gets enough to cover administration costs; and the public, though it gains no legal access to the land, knows that a picturesque portion of the Gaviota Coast has become inviolable. Even the Santa Barbara Cattlemen's Association applauded the agreement.

"[This deal] allows me to buy out my brother, keep the ranch, and keep it in the family," Les Freeman said. "Plus, it's [a way] to guarantee that it won't be developed.'' Then Mills:"And the advantage of a conservation easement is that you have people like Les who've been on the land their whole lives and they know how to take care of it."

"This is the best possible deal for everybody involved as far as I'm concerned," Freeman said as the three of us loaded back into the truck. "And it's a way to start to save the coast."

Going back down the mountain, I asked Freeman what he thought of the national seashore idea. He wasn't hostile to the concept, but he had some reservations. He brought up the fact that there is a "huge mistrust" between ranchers and the federal government. Things could become especially contentious, he continued, along the lower flood plains of the Santa Ynez River if the national seashore opened that section of coastline to the federal government's rules and regulations on water rights and water pollution. Mills sat quietly. When Freeman got out of the truck to close a gate behind us, I turned to Mills and said, "Does the Land Trust support the idea of a national seashore?" Mills seemed very enthusiastic about the idea, but for the record, he told me that the trust hasn't taken a position one way or the other and might never do so. He did say that the establishment of a national seashore could make the Land Trust's job easier by bringing more federal funding to the table. More money brings with it the likelihood that the Land Trust could buy up more development rights along the coast. (The Land Trust's executive director, Michael Feeney, put it this way: "I wouldn't say that we don't support [a national seashore]. I would hope that the national seashore would make it easier for landowners and the land trust to get more voluntary efforts going.")

For the rest of the afternoon, as winds gusted coldly from the west, Freeman drove us across his land, stopping to check on newborn calves through a pair of binoculars, stopping to tighten up a sagging length of barbed wire fence, stopping to point out a "Brangus” cow, a Brahma/Angus crossbreed that's less lazy and traditionally produces heavier, heartier, more profitable calves.

Born in Oceanside in 1948, Freeman came to the Gaviota Coast when he was nine months old and never left. "I happen to like it here, and I don't want to sell," he said as the setting sun hit the water. "And I don't want to se, the coast developed... It would be ugly."

Freeman's neighbor, J.J. Hollister, who lives three canyons to the west, agrees. "I like the coast the way I 'see it now, with the exception of the [Tajiguas landfill] and the two onshore [oil and gas] facilities," Hollister said. "The reality is, look and see what's here and ask yourself if you like it." On Hollister's 862-acre Arroyo Honda Ranch, he's taken the land in a different direction than Freeman has. Or rather, he just stands back and lets nature take over. A decade ago, he fenced cattle away from the creek banks. Two years ago, he kicked them off altogether. He frequently allows biologists and archaeologists to scour his land for wildlife and Chumash history. Sharp-shinned hawks and peregrine falcons soar sky high. On the ground roam deer, gray fox, bobcat, coyote, mountain lion, and bear. The creek is home to red-legged frogs, pond turtles, and a healthy run of steelhead trout. Chumash artifacts and cave paintings hide in the steep canyons.

"I've found that the highest and best Use of [my land] is as a natural preserve," Hollister said. "I equate this ranch with pristineness. How do you protect that? Well, people are out there willing to direct their tax dollars to preserve [land]. There is a system to get where you want to go, you just have to hitch up your jeans and go get it.”

PROGRESSING AGAINST PROGRESS: According to son Eric, the Hvolboll family is very close to striking a deal with the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County for a conservation easement across the family's 750-acre La Paloma Ranch. "When somebody like Les Freeman comes and says it's a good idea, that makes a big difference," Eric said. "My impression is that most of the people who live [along the Gaviota Coast] want it to stay the same." Conservation easements answer those sentiments, he continued. "And I don't have a problem with the idea that my [heirs] won't be able to build condos or a Denny's here."

Eric and his folks, Arne and Elizabeth Hvolboll, haven't yet made up their mind about the proposed national seashore, but they've cooperated with the Gaviota Coast Conservancy--the proposal's number one proponent--toward educating anybody who's willing to lend an ear about the region's living natural and cultural history and why it should be preserved, not paved. "I'm not against the proposal, [but] I can't say I'm in favor of a national seashore, because [the idea] is still evolving," Eric said. "If it requires that the government takes the land or condemns it, we're not in favor of that." Be it seashores or easements or outright land acquisition, the solution, it seems, must come quickly. And to reach it requires, in many cases, bridging the deep chasm yawning broadly between the county's environmentalists and agriculturists. "We know that terrible things can happen if we wait too long." Arne said. "We need to plan early. We have to have some idea of what behooves us.

"But it's kind of difficult to pull on the same plow when your thinking goes like this," he gestured, raising his index fingers above his head and pointing them in opposite directions.