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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL / GEORGE
SKELTON

Reagan Ranch May Have a Buyer--Us

September 15, 1997|GEORGE SKELTON

SANTA BARBARA — Ronald Reagan's beloved mountaintop ranch has been on the market for a year and finally there's a serious buyer--the federal and state governments. You and me.

Dibs on the 1961 great-running Jeep and the mounted head of the pet longhorn. You can have any coyote or tarantula. There are enough stunning vistas--ocean, mountain, Santa Ynez Valley--for all to share. Plus a real good look into the soul of a president.

The deal being brokered is this: Congress appropriates $5 million. The Interior Department gives that to the state of California. The state buys the 688-acre ranch from the Reagans. Gov. Pete Wilson heads a drive to raise roughly $4 million from private sources. The fund provides an endowment to finance operation and maintenance of the ranch as a state park.

No state cost. One-time federal cost.

The public drives to Refugio State Beach, 23 miles north of Santa Barbara. It is shuttled in vans up the steep, twisting, narrow seven-mile road to the 2,000-foot high Rancho del Cielo, "ranch in the sky."

People can visit the 100-year-old "main house" that Reagan remodeled with his own hands, a modest, 1,300-square-foot adobe of Western decor that this president preferred over any mansion. Tour the nearby guest house, hay barn, bunk house, tack room.

Stand on the dock at Lake Lucky, a fish pond Reagan built and named after Nancy Reagan's mother. The president would wade in and grab the water snakes Nancy hated and haul them to a neighbor's pond.

Hike along the miles of riding trails, through manzanita and under oak. Pause at "Mt. Rhino," where the ranch's first dog, Rhino, is buried. So is the president's favorite horse, Little Man, along with Mrs. Reagan's No Strings and a dozen other pets. Reagan made all the markers.

The president had a routine: When an old horse looked sickly, he'd lead it to a back corner of the ranch. A vet would provide a lethal injection so the animal could die peacefully. It would be left there for awhile, returning to nature, being used by the coyotes and vultures. Then the bones would be brought to Mt. Rhino.

Pose for a picture at Heart Rock, a large sandstone where family members have carved their initials. You'll find inside one heart "RR + NDR."

*

"This is a great place. You almost expect a leprechaun to jump out," Gov. Wilson said Saturday as he bounced along in the back of the Jeep, past thick woods and brush, dust flying. "I can see why he loved this. It's beautiful up here."

Wilson's wife, Gayle, sat in front with the driver, longtime Reagan ranch sidekick Dennis LeBlanc, a former state cop and now a lobbyist for Pacific Telesis. The governor and I rode on facing bench seats, dodging limbs, tossing off brush and sometimes getting whacked. Neither of us had slept the night before because the Legislature didn't knock off for the year until 7:15 a.m.

But the wary Wilson insisted on keeping his appointment here because this deal is moving fast. He wanted to see the property before the proposal became public. Until now, only a very few have known about it. Soon, however, the Interior Subcommittee of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee will approve the $5-million grant.

The skids seem greased. "I can't envision any opposition," said the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who also toured the ranch Saturday. "I think President Clinton and the Congress will be very supportive."

Regula, who once was taught by Reagan how to build notched wooden fences, has long advocated public ownership of the ranch. The influential congressman said he has bounced the idea off two key Democrats, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and both are OK with it. Wilson has lobbied the Senate appropriations chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and gotten his support.

"It would be a shame if this weren't made available to the public," said the governor, "because it does say a hell of a lot about Ronald Reagan."

*

Indeed, the ranch not only is historic because it's where a president spent all his vacations, where he entertained Queen Elizabeth during a horrible storm and drove Mikhail Gorbachev around in the Jeep. It's a place that helps explain why Reagan, who loved physical labor, could relate to the working class and create a voter bloc called "Reagan Democrats."

Critics may charge that the government is bailing out the Reagans, who have had the property listed at $6 million with no takers. To that I say, yeah, could be, and so what? This is a good deal all around.

If Reagan no longer can enjoy it, the public should. Put up a no-trespassing sign for developers. Spare us Presidential Estates along Heart Rock Lane.

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