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Will Rogers Didn't Leave His Park to Horses

January 27, 2002|RUSTY AREIAS | Rusty Areias is director of the California state parks department.

California is blessed with 267 state parks, highlighting the diverse natural and cultural wonders of our state. Nowhere is this truer than at Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades. Created as a tribute to the popular American humorist, who established the ranch in the 1920s, the park today attracts visitors from throughout the nation while providing a quiet getaway for Southern Californians.

The state parks department has operated the site for more than 50 years. Now, we are developing a new operating plan for it aimed at doing a better job of highlighting Will Rogers' life. Millions of dollars have been earmarked for renovation of historic structures, particularly the main ranch house. We hope to reestablish some of the vegetation as it was when Rogers and his family made their home there.

Our work is not without controversy. Over the years, the park has allowed a horse boarding facility to be run on the property. At last count, 45 privately owned horses were boarded at this public park. It is this aspect of the park, and my department's efforts to change it, that is causing quite a little fuss, as Rogers might have put it.

I have ordered the temporary suspension of private horse boarding. This follows years of problems arising from horses living permanently at the park, including damage to historic buildings, compaction of soil in corralled areas, erosion and pollution of the creek.

Will Rogers' grandson has been critical of the state parks department for providing this private benefit at a public park, deeded by his family to the state in 1944. The boarding facility has never supported itself financially and has caused an unreasonable workload for park staff.

This suspension will give us time to ascertain damage caused by the horses to structures and vegetation and to measure pollution to nearby streams caused by horse manure. We also want to determine if boarding is compatible with park operations and, if it is, how many horses should be allowed.

A few of the people who are boarding their horses at the park say the state has no right to make such a move. They have enjoyed this privilege for so long that they now seem to consider it their prerogative. If Will Rogers were alive today, they say, he would be the first to object.

Nonsense. Rogers loved horses, no question about it. But mostly he loved people, meaning the public at large. When his widow left his beloved ranch to the state, the gift deed required that the property "be used exclusively as a public park and as a place of public recreation in a manner not inconsistent with its maintenance as a memorial and historical monument." Nothing was said about private horse boarding.

Does the state parks department think horses and equestrian activities are an important part of the Will Rogers legacy? Absolutely. Trail riding continues just as it does at scores of other state parks. Polo matches will resume in the spring, as they do every year. It is only private horse boarding that is being temporarily suspended.

We are convening a special advisory group to help develop a new equestrian plan. Many interests will be represented, including equestrian. The new plan could include overnight horse boarding. But it also may include horses for rent by the public, occasional horse shows or roping demonstrations and other public equestrian activities.

A ranger recently told me of a visitor to Will Rogers who had hiked up to the historic barn above the ranch house. He saw the boarded horses in the stalls, some of their names engraved on signs attached to the doors, and the privately employed grooms working in the area. He hurried away. He told the ranger that he thought the area was private and off-limits to park visitors. No public park should be perceived that way.

Our vision for the park wants more people, not fewer, to enjoy the park and to better understand what Will Rogers meant to this country.

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