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National security puts a state beach off-limits

Vandenberg Air Force Base riles hikers by barring Point Sal access.

December 11, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

At the trail head to one of the most remote and rugged public beaches in California, graffiti scratched onto a road sign asks: "What good is a state beach if you can't use it?"

It's a question that has vexed lovers of wind-swept Point Sal State Beach in the year since officials at Vandenberg Air Force Base abruptly closed the only public road leading to and from its rocky shoreline and began citing hikers who used it.

Since January, at least 15 hikers trying to visit the pristine cove near Santa Maria have received citations.

Base officials insist they have acted to "secure critical national assets."

But their move to block beach access has angered naturalists, local residents and the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

One weekend in March, Melanie Callaway, 40, and a friend were walking the road when they were confronted by security forces dressed in camouflage, who cited them for trespassing.

"It was like a dream," Callaway said. "I've never even gotten a traffic ticket before. It's a hike we've done many times before. But we had to appear before a federal judge and were sentenced to community service."

Vandenberg officials say they are trying to protect the base's sensitive missile programs from security threats. County-owned Point Sal Road crosses the northernmost tip of Vandenberg, an area the officials say is dotted with underground missile silos.

Hikers, they say, have been found wandering the beach during launch exercises -- a no-no even when the right of way was still open. Others have ignored signs warning them not to enter base property, officials said.

But county leaders point to documents dating to 1935 that they say support the public's long-standing right of access. Vandenberg honored those agreements for decades without a problem, said county Supervisor Joni Gray.

To arbitrarily close the road and begin citing citizens attempting to use it is not only an abuse of authority by the military, it's illegal, Gray contends. "People shouldn't have to be doing community service when in fact they didn't break the law," she said. "We have set forth that legal argument, and the base officials haven't disagreed with it."

Vandenberg did not inform the county, the state parks department or the California Coastal Commission of its decision to close the road until April, after it had begun citing alleged trespassers.

In a statement last week, Col. Stephen Tanous, commander of the 30th Space Wing, said his airmen would no longer cite hikers or seek to prosecute them. Instead, he said, if someone tries to sneak past the barbed-wire barrier on Point Sal Road, patrols will escort them off base property.

"Trespassing on VAFB remains a crime, and the public is asked to cooperate with state and local officials as we work [on] a solution to this issue," Tanous added.

County and base officials have met several times to hash out an agreement, most recently on Nov. 29, Gray said. Though Tanous has agreed to restore access through a "specified route," it has yet to happen, she said -- apparently due to delays in getting an interim agreement approved by higher-ups in the Air Force.

"That's why I'm squawking," Gray said. "We think people have been deprived of their beach long enough."

Point Sal is a little-known gem in the state's recreation inventory. The county road once took motorists all the way to a parking lot overlooking the beach. But the El Nino storms of 1998 washed out huge chunks of the road, making it impassable except to those on foot.

Since then, the only way to get to the park's two miles of ocean frontage has been to hike seven miles on Point Sal Road, starting from the trail head on nearby Brown Road.

"It's gorgeous. You have to hike a few miles to get into it. But the reward is really great," said state parks Ranger Danita Rodriguez. "It's pretty much an uninhabited, virgin beach."

At low tide, tide pools teem with sea life, she said. Rocky outcroppings attract seals and sea lions, and the sand in the beach cove is very fine.

Ellen Dorwin, a chemistry professor at nearby Allen Hancock Community College, has been going there for years, sometimes with groups of students. In springtime, she said, the two-hour hike to the shoreline takes visitors past meadows filled with wild lilies in lavender, yellow and white.

Dorwin said she was hiking to the beach with students in September 2006 when she was accosted by base security patrolling in helicopters and on ATVs. It was before the base's official crackdown and she didn't get a citation. But she found the confrontation so upsetting that she is considering moving from Guadalupe, a small town of field workers just north of Point Sal.

"I bought my house here precisely because I love that beach," Dorwin said. "Now I can't go there. The whole thing makes me so upset."

Meanwhile, Callaway and her hiking buddy, Lori Bright, have returned to the hiking trail a few times since they were cited. But she says they always stop and turn around when they reach the threatening signs and barbed-wire barricades.

"It makes me mad as hell," Callaway said. "The ocean is just over that ridge, but we can't get there."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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