SANTA CRUZ ISLAND — About 8,500 acres of rugged hiking trails, expansive ocean vistas and sun-kissed beaches off the Ventura County coast became public property Wednesday in a scenic ceremony attended by politicians, environmentalists and a rock star.
The real estate on the eastern half of the island, a gift from the Nature Conservancy of California, is worth more than $25 million and is said to be the single most valuable land grant to the National Park Service in about 30 years.
The donation gives the public access to 14,733 acres, or 24%, of Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park.
Before the land transfer, which was announced in March but completed this week, the Nature Conservancy owned 90% of the island.
"This is 8,500 acres of some of the most pristine land on God's green earth that is going to be available to my constituents and people all over this nation," said Rep. Elton Gallegly, (R-Simi Valley), standing on the shore of Prisoners' Harbor on Wednesday afternoon.
The low-key dedication ceremony was attended by former Congressman Robert Lagomarsino, known as the "father of Channel Islands National Park" because he sponsored legislation that established it, and Joe Walsh, guitarist for the rock group the Eagles.
Walsh said he was a friend of the island's former owner, Santa Barbara doctor Carey Stanton. Before Stanton's death in the late 1980s, Walsh said he promised to look after the island's cultural resources.
Walsh has pledged to continue to help the Park Service preserve and restore the historic buildings on the island.
"You don't want these buildings to fall down in 100 years and for the reason to be lack of funds," he said.
The Park Service has built a restroom at Prisoners' Harbor and this spring plans to start rebuilding a dilapidated pier once used for transporting sheep off the island.
In the meantime, "We're open for business," said Tim J. Setnicka, park superintendent.
Any member of the public can now take advantage of the hiking opportunities on the island or dock a boat in the harbor. Already more than 60,000 visitors trek to the Channel Islands annually, and Setnicka said he expects the newly acquired land to boost those numbers--especially after the opening of back-country campsites.
Once he works out all the details, including water and sewage issues, he said Santa Cruz Island will be the only place in the park where visitors can backpack overnight.
The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving species, has tried to protect and restore the island habitat by eradicating nonnative plants and animals.
Lynn Lozier, the conservancy's Santa Cruz Island project director, said the land gift symbolizes the group's commitment to managing the island as "the ecological unit that it is."
The island, about 25 miles off the Ventura County coast, is 95 square miles with two mountain ranges rising as high as 2,400 feet.
Of the 11 plant and animal species unique to the island, 10 are endangered, Lozier told the small crowd Wednesday as morning fog burned off to expose the island's sapphire shoreline.
"We have big challenges ahead and we can't do it alone," she said.
As part of the land gift, the conservancy and the Park Service have launched an island-wide management plan to tackle the two biggest problems facing the ecosystem: the endangered Santa Cruz Island fox population and coastal sage scrub habitat.
A preliminary environmental report on the $4.5-million management plan is scheduled to be released for public review in November, Setnicka said.
The Park Service will also help manage public access to the island, something the conservancy has little experience doing, Lozier said.
The donation is "the first step to keeping Santa Cruz Island one of the most incredible places on planet earth," she said.