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A Pristine Legacy : It's What He's Saved That Makes Outgoing Channel Islands Park Superintendent Proud

July 06, 1989|STEVE CHAWKINS | Times Staff Writer

When Bill Ehorn arrived in Ventura 15 years ago to take charge of the Channel Islands National Monument, the islands dotting the Santa Barbara Channel were mainly pristine clumps of clay with haunting seascapes and some plants and animals found nowhere else on earth.

And today, as Ehorn prepares to take the top job at Redwood National Park in Northern California, they still are.

He isn't shy about the achievement.

"I feel as if I've set aside these islands for all time," he said in an interview last week.

The National Monument has become a National Park. Ehorn's staff has grown from 5 to 78. The islands under his jurisdiction have increased from two to five, and his budget has jumped from about $164,000 to more than $2 million.

Meanwhile, the superintendent has left his imprint on the park--the 40th of 50 national parks in the United States and the only one in Southern California--in a hundred ways. He helped design the park's airy headquarters at Ventura Harbor, and its 60-foot research vessel. He helped draft legislation enabling park scientists to undertake exhaustive monitoring and measurement of all the species in his realm.

Strolling through the park's visitor center last week, Ehorn pointed to a continuously playing videotape showing, among other things, a diver holding aloft some sea creature. "That's me," he said.

And, even on his last day, he still was being consulted about workaday park problems. Barnacles had clogged the pump in the tide pool exhibit, turning the water murky and foul. What could be done?

Ehorn had a fair idea of the solution, since he had designed the exhibit.

In the early days, Ehorn "ran boats, dug pit toilets, performed maintenance and fought for more money, supplies and manpower," said Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) in a tribute he read into the Congressional Record.

"He has gone beyond what many would have to further the interests of the park," said Lagomarsino, who sponsored the bill that made Channel Islands a national park March 5, 1980.

That has not always pleased commercial fishermen. Many of them feel pinched by restrictions Ehorn imposed on fishing areas off the islands.

"He's the right man for the Park Service, but I'm not sure he's the right man for the fishermen," said Rudy Mangue, a Santa Barbara-based urchin diver who is active in the California Urchin Divers Assn. and founder of California Abalone Assn.

Mangue criticized Ehorn, whose jurisdiction spans waters a mile around each island, for needlessly closing off fertile fishing areas.

The park expanded during Ehorn's administration. The monument consisted just of Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands. Ehorn negotiated the $30-million purchase of Santa Rosa Island, and he helped to extend the park's umbrella over San Miguel and Santa Cruz, which is controlled by the park and by the Nature Conservancy.

But--despite his repeated enthusiastic assertions that "this is the greatest national park in America!"--Ehorn is moving on. Redwood National Park, home of the world's tallest tree--a 367-foot redwood--has beckoned, and Ehorn, who grew up in the shadow of its colossal timbers, has accepted. A successor likely will not be named for several months, he said.

He and his wife, Nancy, a park consultant who until last year was assistant superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, will build a house near his childhood home of Red Bluff. He has already plunged into the study of an environment more suited to squirrels than seals, a verdant setting where the park service and lumber companies have been at loggerheads for decades.

"It will be extremely challenging," said the tanned, ebullient 49-year-old Ehorn. "I've always felt that if I left here, that's where I would go."

Ehorn arrived at Channel Islands in 1974, after two years as a program analyst with the National Park Service in downtown Omaha. His rise up the Park Service ladder had been brisk, with a range of increasing responsibilities at Grand Canyon, Lassen Volcanic and Sequoia National Parks, and the superintendent's post at Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah.

From the outset, he had a clear view of his mission.

"Our public relations program was lousy," he said. "I had to go out and let people know we exist."

Sometimes, that happened in unfortunate ways.

Ehorn was at the center of a national storm in 1976, when he shot most of the burros on San Miguel Island. He said the feral burros, remnants of the island's defunct ranching operations, were rampaging through forests of delicate caliche, dead shrubs coated with blown sand and lime deposits. Moreover, most of the burros were crippled, apparently because of the lack of nutrients on the remote island, Ehorn said. The shooting was "the most reasonable" alternative, he concluded after an environmental assessment.

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