Former Rep. Robert Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), who sponsored legislation creating the park, said he and Park Service officials intended to allow the former owners to keep their lifestyle. "One reason that it would be a park is because the landowners had treated the assets so well," said Lagomarsino, a friend of the Vails who hunted elk on the island before it became a park.
The law creating the park stated that the former landowners' activities could continue if they were compatible with the Park Service's mission.
But current park officials say that the public essentially has been barred from more than 90% of the island during hunting seasons that last from August into December to avoid hunting accidents.
The setup was unusual, park officials say. Hunting in national parks is rarely allowed. The deer and elk introduced decades earlier were considered private property, not the government's. And the Vails were allowed to keep these nonnative animals in the park for a private operation that annually charged dozens of hunters thousands of dollars each but paid the government nothing.
Nita Vail -- a former assistant agriculture secretary under former Gov. Pete Wilson and now executive director of California Rangeland Trust -- said hunting operations commonly supplement ranching income and help manage wildlife. And she said her family has tried to cooperatively share the island with the Park Service, the public and researchers.
In the mid-1990s, the Park Service tried to toughen the permit terms after evidence mounted that the cattle and hunting operations were harming vegetation and riparian areas.
"There was absolutely no restriction on how the island would be used by any of the livestock or wildlife," said Mack Shaver, superintendent at the time.
The Park Service was under pressure from state water-quality officials who had ordered officials to stop cattle from fouling streams. Later, the National Parks and Conservation Assn., an environmental group, filed a lawsuit alleging that cattle, deer and elk were harming the island's rare species. And the Vails unsuccessfully sought a court order to block Park Service rules that would reduce the three types of animals.
After the litigation was settled, all cattle were removed in 1998 -- the last roundup.
Looking back, former park Supt. Tim Setnicka, said he believes the Vails took good care of the land, or so many rare plants would not have survived. "Nobody ever gave them credit," he said. "The Vails went from being heroes [for selling their ranch] and good stewards to 'Cattle ranching is bad and we have to stop it.' "
Kathryn McEachern, plant ecologist and botanist for the U.S. Geological Survey here, said that livestock grazed by the Vails and earlier owners wiped out much of the native vegetation, allowing alien grasses to cover most of the island.
"The cattle are gone, so the effects are reduced," she said, "but with the continuation of the deer and elk, the island recovers at a slow rate.... It may be too slow for some of the rare and endangered plants."
Under the settlement, the Vails are required to limit the elk and deer to a total of about 1,100 and the herds, starting in 2008, will be reduced by 25% a year. That would eliminate them by the end of 2011 -- unless Rep. Hunter is successful in his attempt to preserve the herds for continued hunting by the military. Meanwhile, park officials say that riparian areas and native grasses have been making a comeback since cattle were removed. And they are monitoring the effects of deer and elk on endangered plants.
The survival of Santa Rosa Island fox, added to the endangered species list in 2004, remains the most serious concern.
A decade ago there were probably more than 1,000 foxes on the island, said Kate Faulkner, the park's chief of resources management. "In 2000, we got down to 14 foxes."
Using a captive breeding program, the Park Service has been able to bring the number to 71 -- almost half still in captivity, the others equipped with electronic collars in the wild.
Officials say they believe that golden eagles that expanded their range to the island are the cause -- and that feral pigs and fawns from the nonnative mule deer helped sustain the predators. "We know of no other cause of that decline," Faulkner said.
Nita Vail questioned whether there was any connection between her family's longtime hunting operation and the loss of foxes. "We've been on this island since 1901," she said, "and we've never seen the foxes disappear."
The foxes are one of the main attractions for the 6,000 visitors who come by small planes and boats.
Kevin Katz, a Venice carpenter, made the trip by kayak in October then hiked the island. He saw hunters, mule deer and elk, but no foxes. However, he did see a partial tusk of a pygmy mammoth embedded in a bank. "It is a magical place," he said.
Like Katz, Julie Tumamait of Ojai Valley does not want to see access restricted, but she has a special reason for going there. She is chairwoman of the Barbareno / Ventureno Band of Mission Indians, and her Chumash ancestors lived on the island.
"Man cannot be in a place without leaving evidence behind," she said. "There are ... shells, stone-carved effigies, ornamentation, seashells [from] necklaces. Shards from the manufacturing of arrowheads or drill bits.... There are sacred sites."
Park officials said that after the Vails leave at the end of 2011, they hope to bring more people to the island by converting ranch buildings to overnight accommodations and a museum on the island's heritage, including ranching. They also envision van service for visitors.
"The government owns the buildings now, but [the former owners] are in possession," park chief Galipeau said.