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Status as National Seashore Rejected for Gaviota Coast

The 76 miles of shoreline rate the designation, but landowners strongly oppose it, the U.S. says.

March 10, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

The National Park Service on Tuesday abandoned a Clinton-era proposal to designate the Gaviota Coast north of Santa Barbara a national seashore, saying that though the land is a national treasure, protection is unfeasible largely because of opposition from local property owners.

The park service's decision grew out of a four-year study that says the land, one of the last undeveloped stretches of Southern California coastline, is worthy of inclusion in the national park system. The study, which was delivered to Congress on Tuesday, does not rule out the possibility of future protection.

Nearby property owners were relieved by the decision.

Jenifer McNabb said she and other landowners were pleased that they no longer had to worry about their land being surrounded by a national seashore and overrun by tourists.

"It's a nice idea to talk about a national park. They are green and warm and fuzzy," said McNabb, who raises Arabian horses on 67 acres. "But we were worried we would be forced to sell our land. That's what happened at Point Reyes [National Seashore]. That's what happened on the Channel Islands [National Park]."

Conservationists and the area's congresswoman decried the decision but said they weren't surprised by it.

"This is just another example of the Bush administration turning its back on what it's supposed to do: protecting natural resources," said Rep. Lois Capps, a Santa Barbara Democrat whose district includes the Gaviota Coast.

Capps noted that the 76 miles of dramatic bluffs, isolated beaches and terraced grasslands were sandwiched between two areas where the Bush administration advocates more oil drilling: the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest and the federal waters in the Santa Barbara Channel.

The national seashore designation was sought by local conservationists who hoped to attract federal money to help purchase and preserve large ranches and other shoreline parcels before they were sold to developers.

But local property owners -- especially those in the exclusive gated community of Hollister Ranch, next to Gaviota State Park -- mounted a major lobbying campaign to defeat the initiative. They insisted that they were good stewards of their land and neither wanted nor needed Washington's help to ward off development.

Craig Manson, assistant secretary of the Interior who oversees national parks, cited "strong opposition" from local landowners as a principal reason why the park service decided to back off. Manson said the agency needed to tackle a backlog of repairs and deferred maintenance at existing parks before purchasing more land.

"The study determined the area contains nationally significant natural and cultural resources, and is suitable but not feasible for inclusion in the national park system," Manson wrote in a letter accompanying the study. He said the area's landowners and local public agencies had already set a fine example in land protection efforts.

During the last few years, landowners and property rights advocates have vehemently criticized both the proposal and the park service. Although park service officials insist that the agency purchases land from willing sellers only, at public hearings opponents introduced landowners with holdings inside park boundaries who said their property rights were continually violated.

"I'd like to know, what's the difference between a national park study and stealing?" asked a rancher at one such meeting.

Meanwhile, the Hollister Ranch Owners Assn., representing a gated community of ranchettes of 100 acres or more, assessed its members at least $300,000 to hire a former congressman to lobby against the park proposal.

"We were worried we would attract so many more tourists we wouldn't be able to handle it," said Kim Kimbell, past president of the association. "We were safeguarding our natural resources, protecting our flanks."

The pressure apparently worked. The park service, accused of favoritism toward a local preservation group, the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, removed the study's principal author and reassigned him. The park service also brought in an array of new faces to try to calm a growing chorus of angry voices among local landowners

Although the study was completed by park service staff in California, the final decision was made in Washington by members of an administration that has repeatedly said it favors private stewardship of land over public ownership.

Assistant Secretary Manson was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

The study, ordered by Congress in 1999, focused on about 200,000 acres ranging from Coal Oil Point at UC Santa Barbara to Point Sal at the northern boundary of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Most of the land is already in public hands, as part of Vandenberg and the Los Padres National Forest. Much of the rest is on big ranches, the largest being the 24,500-acre Bixby Ranch, which straddles Point Conception.

The Gaviota Coast has an unusual abundance and diversity of wildlife because it is one of the few places in the world where warm and cold ocean currents collide. An estimated 1,400 plant and animal species are known to inhabit the stretch of coastal land.

Urban development has begun to push up the coast from Goleta. The 360-room Bacara resort now rests on a piece of previously undisturbed shoreline. An enclave of luxury homes is being planned a bit farther up the coast at Naples Beach.

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