Landowners and activists committed to upholding the property rights of a free society are in a quandary, perceiving the current administration they once relied upon for relief from park and monument declarations as now stepping over to the side of the environmentalists.
But congressional and Bush administration spokespeople refute that characterization, arguing that some ongoing National Park Service activities have been continued solely because of congressional mandates handed down prior to the 2000 presidential election.
The Gaviota Coast in Santa Barbara County, Calif., is one such area over which landowners, environmentalists and politicians are currently clashing, with each side awaiting the completion of a Park Service study that will arm Congress with the information it needs to decide the fate of an estimated 200,000 shoreline acres, 73,000 of which are privately owned. The remaining 127,000 acres are shared between state, federal and county interests.
Adding fuel to the controversy over the California coast is a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling seen by land-rights supporters as further evidence of an administration’s lackadaisical approach to curtailing government infringements on private-property owners.
Decided by the federal justices on April 23 was the Lake Tahoe Basin case, in which nearly 400 Nevada and California property owners sought compensation for a 32-month building moratorium placed against their lakefront lands. Development had been halted at the state and local levels because of concerns about escalating water pollution and so that a land-use plan might be developed. Landowners, however, viewed that preventive action as a government taking and demanded financial retribution.
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, upheld the lower court decision that disallowed compensation.
“We were just so stunned,” said Mike Hardiman, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist that counts the American Land Rights Association as one of his clients. “The (lawyer) within the attorney general’s office, he went right into court and defended the government agencies over the landowner. The property owner got hosed. People were just pinching themselves.”
Considered a “major decision” to land-rights organizations, Hardiman said, the subsequent political fallout from the Lake Tahoe case has been imbued with caution and mistrust, and has affected how some defenders of Gaviota Coast private-property rights have viewed their chances with this administration.
“The Bush administration has a mixed record at best,” said Chuck Cushman, founder and executive director of the Washington-based American Land Rights Association. “I think their heart is in the right place, though.”
Caught in the middle of the fray are the Santa Barbara County landowners who view this ongoing National Park Service study as a threatening shadow that will eventually lower their property values, render their lands inaccessible or unusable, and destroy facets – or all – of their cattle and farming businesses.
Actions to preserve the coastal property began by individual effort in 1991, when a man named Bob Keats sought and received the support of the grass-roots preservation organization Surfrider Foundation to prevent urban sprawl, according to landowner statements and postings on the foundation’s Internet site. The Surfrider Foundation, along with Keats, then began a local Santa Barbara chapter and, in April of 1994, solicited the aid of the Audubon Society.
A month later, a group of interested citizens formed the Gaviota Coast Conservancy. The conservancy was granted nonprofit status in 1996; its members subsequently convinced the National Park Service to begin its feasibility study to determine if the coastal property should receive federal jurisdiction. The Sierra Club, a nationally known environmental preservationist organization, has also partnered with the conservancy.
In November 1999, “following intense lobbying effort,” Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., secured passage of legislation that called for the Department of Interior to begin a feasibility study for preservation of the Gaviota Coast, according to press statements posted on the congresswoman’s official website.
“This is great news for the central coast,” the press release attributed the congresswoman as stating then. “As farming and ranching become increasingly threatened by urban sprawl, this study is a good first step toward preserving the central coast’s environment and strong agricultural heritage.”
Landowners bordering the Gaviota Coast study boundaries said they were not informed of the entirety of the preservation actions until the time of Capps’ legislation, a point they view as contentious and indicative of Park Service and environmentalist tactics to avoid consideration of their concerns. They have since met with Capps and with Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary for the Office of Policy, Management and Budget within the Department of the Interior to discuss their concerns about federal involvement.
“In March of 2000, the Park Service announced the study for the first time for public comment,” said Jenifer McNabb, who owns 67 acres of land along the Gaviota Coast, near Goleta. “The other side of the table will tell you they did tell us before. But nobody knew.”
McNabb lives an estimated 5 miles from the coast; the boundary lines of the study run approximately 8 miles from the water into the land. She is concerned about accessing her property, should an official national seashore become a reality.
“I raise Arabian horses,” McNabb said. “I am asked about access every year because of this public road that goes through here.”
Though the study – the latest update of which was released in May 2002 and obtained via a spokesperson at the U.S. Department of Interior – does stipulate that private land owners not wishing to sell their properties would retain access, some holding deeds in Santa Barbara County doubt that allowance would remain in place for long. As proof, they said, one need only look to past landowner dealings with the Park Service and federal land agencies.
Nancy Crawford-Hall was once a co-owner of Santa Rosa Island, now called Channel Islands National Park. The island housed what she claimed was the “largest single-family-owned cattle operation in the western United States” for nearly 100 years, until “the powers-that-be and the government decided they would like to purchase the land.”
Having already lost a land condemnation battle with federal land agencies over property they had owned in Santa Barbara County, the Crawford-Hall family reluctantly, she said, decided to sell their portion of the island, with the stipulation that their 6,000- to 10,000-head cattle operation could continue unhindered until 2011.
That allowance, however, was violated, she said.
“Somebody in the Park Service went to the national parks conservation organization and basically schemed,” she said. “When it ended, they came up with ridiculous regulations. We had to take all the cattle off. There was no other place to put them. They went to sale.”
The regulations imposed by the Park Service, she said, included so strict of fencing standards – reportedly to protect against soil erosion and destruction of an endangered bird nesting area – that the family was ultimately forced to abandon the island.
“We’re gone,” Crawford-Hall said. “They made it financially impossible to stay. That whole thing of the willing seller, I think it’s a plain-out lie. They create circumstances to force you to sell.”
Crawford-Hall, now a resident of Baldwin Hills in Santa Barbara County, said she is still embroiled in battles with the environmentalists and federal land agencies over oil fields she currently owns and operates and over 6,000 acres of the 10,000-acre cattle ranch she maintains in the vicinity of the Gaviota Coast study lines.
“I wish Bush would make it a bigger priority,” she said, speaking to the issue of private land-ownership rights in general. “I think he’s not doing enough. … And the way it is now, if they can’t legislate you out, they’ll terrorize you out.”
As to why the average American dwelling outside a farming or cattle region should care of her plight, Crawford-Hall said that increased reliance on foreign markets would only weaken the U.S. national economy.
“We don’t need to be dependent on some other country for our food and our clothing and our medicine,” she said. “These all come from farming products … and every acre taken out of production means less food, less clothes, less medicine and more reliance on overseas providers.”
The National Park Service does admit to some past instances of aggressive land-pursuit dealings, but such type of activity is now a thing of the past, one spokesperson said, and the Gaviota Coast study is being conducted in such a way not only to solicit but also earnestly consider landowner opinion.
“Certainly, there’s a lot of information being spread around about horror stories that have happened in the past, and there are actions that the National Park Service has taken in the past that we wouldn’t do today,” said Martha Crusius, a planner within the agency’s Pacific Great Basin Support Office in Oakland, Calif. “But there’s a lot of jumping to conclusions (with the Gaviota study) … and assuming the worst.
“As to tactics to turn people into willing sellers,” she continued, “I have never been aware of those tactics being used. We are a federal agency with constraints to purchase property, and that’s awfully hard for people to understand.”
Crusius is part of the planning team that has worked directly to formulate the National Park Service Gaviota Coast study. Her job, she said, is solely to “evaluate the significance of the resources” and “make a determination” if preservation measures are necessary. Congress, she explained, then decides whether or not to declare the site a federal coastline.
Even if Congress turns down the idea of declaring the Gaviota area under federal jurisdiction, however, landowners will not be happy. The nature of a study, according to both Crusius and Warren Brown, a program manager for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., is such that a declaration of federal authority always remains a possibility, regardless of the decision of the current Congress.
“That’s true,” Brown said, agreeing that studies do not disappear from the field of congressional considerations. “We don’t really throw them out. There are a lot of cases where we’ve done studies and then landowners are not favorably disposed to a park and nothing happens. Then the local folks change their minds and decide they want a park there, or local officials decide economics have changed and they want a park.”
By way of example, Brown cited two instances of National Park Service studies that were shelved for several years before any declaration of federal jurisdiction was actually solidified.
“The Tallgrass Prairie study was conducted in 1987 and a national preserve authorized in 1996,” he said. “The Great Basin, 77,000 acres in Nevada near Baker, that study was done in 1979, and in 1986 a park was authorized after local politics and interests shifted to become more favorable to a park.”
In fact, according to documents received from Brown, numerous other states include National Park Service declarations that spanned from studies conducted years earlier. To landowners with property concerns along the Gaviota Coast boundaries, that is the sum of their fears with a Park Service action that is seemingly labeled a noncommittal measure.
“We’re trying to get the study in the can because for a study, we know what that means,” said Bernice Stableford, who lives off Refugio Canyon in Santa Barbara County, near former President Ronald Reagan’s ranch. “We don’t want to fight this for 30 years … and we don’t need a study hanging over our head.”
Even though Scarlett has assured Gaviota Coast landowners that the “chances of a study becoming a park get smaller and smaller each year,” Stableford said, “it’s still like fighting a ghost. We are so small in the scale of things.”
Securing the ears of the key politicians in Washington, D.C., has been a time-consuming activity, she described, and so far has net little in terms of definitively positive results.
Capps and Scarlett, both involved with the Gaviota Coast study in varying degrees, have revealed no set opinions of whether they believe federal preservation actions are necessary.
“The congresswoman definitely wants to protect agriculture as well as open space along the Gaviota Coast,” said Marla Viorist, press secretary for Capps. “She wants it to remain viable. She basically feels the study is doing what a study should do. Establishing a national seashore is not a foregone conclusion, and she’s not even sure it’s a right option.”
Viorist said the congresswoman had no comment in direct address of the landowners’ concerns about the undying nature of a National Park Service study.
A spokesperson for Scarlett, who requested anonymity, said Scarlett was basically following the “Four C’s” of Department of the Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s overall policy, and using “cooperation, consultation, communication, all in the service of conservation” to aid in the determination of a viable coastline preservation solution.
Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara County, the opposition mounts, with numerous officials previously supportive of the study – and of Capps’ legislation – switching their alliances, more aware of the views of their constituents.
“When it first came about, it seemed the board was unanimous in going ahead with the study,” said Tom Urbanske, Santa Barbara County supervisor, who said he was contacted about four years ago by one of the preservation groups concerned with the future of the Gaviota Coast.
“It wasn’t an issue then,” he continued, explaining how the development of the study remained under the radar screens of the landowners. “The group asked us to contact the Interior Department (to offer support for preservation actions) and the board voted unanimously to do that. Then, a few years later, the landowners began to smell a rat. Naturally, when one of our constituents becomes concerned, so do we.”
Urbanske is just one of an estimated 25 California officials and associations now opposed to declaration of a federal coastline, according to a document published by the Coastal Stewardship Council, a grass-roots organization of landowners trying to prevent the National Park Service from assuming jurisdiction over the Gaviota Coast.
The National Park Service, as detailed in its most recent Gaviota Coast newsletter, expects to complete and release a drafted version of the feasibility study in January, following at least one comment period that continues through September.
Cheryl K. Chumley is a freelance reporter and writer living in the northern Virginia area.