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DISPLEASURE ISLAND : Missing link: Twenty miles off the Ventura coast, Santa Cruz Island would complete the five-island chain designated in 1980 as Southern California's first national park. But Francis Gherini owns part of the island and won't sell his share.

May 24, 1990|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND — Someday, taxpayers, this will all be yours--the tide pools, the pelicans gliding past San Pedro Point, the sun-bleached sheep skulls in the sand at Smugglers Cove, the lone orange tree at Scorpion Anchorage.

But this is the Gherini Ranch, not Gilligan's Island. On the slopes beyond that orange tree lie thousands of acres laid bare by drought and foraging feral sheep. And behind this island lies a tangled history of human dispute and litigation that has divided a family, entangled a former secretary of the interior and threatens to delay completion of Southern California's first national park.

"Isn't it sad?" asks Cheryl Wendel, whose boat-cruise company, Island Packers, took about 3,000 visitors to Santa Cruz Island last year.

"It's real hard to take people out to Santa Cruz," she says. "They see what's happening."

Santa Cruz Island, four times the size of Manhattan and 20 miles west of the Ventura coastline, is the last link in the five-island chain that Congress designated as a national park in 1980. Since then, the National Park Service has been working to buy up or take control of all the islands and has succeeded everywhere but the eastern 6,264 acres of Santa Cruz Island, where San Pedro Point, Smugglers Cove and Scorpion Anchorage lie.

Last month, the Park Service bought a one-quarter interest in that eastern acreage and announced plans to buy the rest by September of next year.

But that announcement overlooked Francis Gherini.

And Francis Gherini, a 75-year-old Oxnard attorney who owns one-fourth of that acreage, has for years been arguing with the Park Service, the California Coastal Commission and his own family over the island property.

"We are differently situated, and therefore differently motivated," Gherini explains, referring to frayed relations in his family.

"There have been intense family disagreements. You can put it that way," says his nephew John Gherini, a Santa Barbara attorney who has become a spokesman for those in the Gherini family who oppose Francis' position. "He has caused some substantial problems."

Among his allies, however, Francis Gherini counts William P. Clark Jr., who served as secretary of the interior from 1983 to 1985--overseeing, among other agencies, the National Park Service.

Clark, a longtime family friend who is now an attorney with the firm Rogers & Welk, has held repeated discussions with Park Service officials about Gherini's position. He has also been named in court documents as Gherini's legal representative in the matter.

Clark maintains that he has not been acting as an advocate or as Gherini's legal counsel, but as a "friend of the court." But several federal officials, including Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) and Channel Islands National Park Supt. C. Mack Shaver, see him in Francis Gherini's corner.

"His role," said John Gherini of Clark, "remains somewhat a mystery."

But observers on all sides agree that unless Francis Gherini makes a grand compromise or federal officials make a hefty increase on their current tentative offer of $3.87 million for his quarter-interest in the property, the negotiations could deteriorate into a costly and lengthy legal condemnation case. And Santa Cruz Island's tradition of discord could live on a while longer.

From a helicopter 500 feet over Santa Cruz Island, it's easy enough to pick out the Gherini Ranch.

The island is surrounded by spectacular cliffs, caves and shoreline, but along the mountain ridges on the eastern end stands a wire fence. On one side--the property owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed in cooperation with the park service--the ground is light green, peppered with shrubs and, despite the four-year drought, covered with grass in narrow valleys where rainfall collects.

On the other side, the ground is gray.

What happened here? Civil war, to begin with, and disease, real estate battles, family infighting and a spell of human ecological improvisation that has left the native fowl and island foxes in the company of imported guests ranging from the sheep to a few peacocks and an uncertain number of 150-pound feral pigs.

"They've really hammered the island," says Shaver, thinking of the estimated 600 or more feral sheep that roam the property, left over from a ranching operation suspended a decade ago. "It really looks like Afghanistan in some places."

The pigs are distant descendants of another ranch operation, suspended as long as a century ago. They are joined by a handful of feral horses, whose numbers steadily dwindle as they age and as food and water grow harder to come by. Earlier this month, one equine skeleton lay bleaching in the sun on a high Santa Cruz hilltop. At Scorpion Anchorage, caretaker Duane Owens, a retired Ojai public school principal, maintains a green garden and an immaculately kept pair of buildings for overnight guests. He is the island's only full-time resident these days, but once there were hundreds.

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