First visitors' center opens on Santa Cruz

First visitors' center opens on Santa Cruz

By Chuck Graham 04/09/2009

Until April 6, visitors to Santa Cruz Island were met by a National Park Service (NPS) ranger, oriented on the southeast region of the island and its regulations, and then were left on their own to experience the largest island off the coast of California.

The NPS unveiled its new and impressive Scorpion Ranch Visitor Center at the historic Scorpion Ranch House, a large masonry building constructed in 1886, as a dining area, kitchen and dormitory for the ranch hands. Two of those rooms are now filled with a throng of exhibits. Now visitors can get more detailed information about the mountainous, 96-square-mile islet and the most bio-diverse of California’s eight Channel Islands.

Santa Cruz Island topography supports habitats for approximately 60 plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. It would take a lifetime to explore its rugged mountain ranges, deep canyons with year-round springs, craggy coastline, lonely beaches and pristine tide pools.

“Creation of a visitor center at Scorpion Ranch provides a much needed, convenient facility to orient visitors to Santa Cruz Island,” said Channel Islands National Park Superintendent Russell Galipeau. “They will learn about the island’s tremendous biodiversity and rich cultural history, as well as current resource issues.”

Next to the historic ranch implements, an orientation kiosk awaits visitors with information panels and a topographic relief map to acquaint themselves with the island. Featured are the abundant recreational opportunities; safety tips for camping, hiking, diving and kayaking, and suggestions for minimizing impacts on the unique flora and fauna of Santa Cruz. The interpretive project took four years to complete.

After the kiosk is the historical blacksmith shop, its insides adorned with the tools of the trade.  Self-sufficiency was an important element during the ranching era, and a blacksmith shop was essential to success.    

The dedication began with a Chumash Indian ceremony led by Julie Tumamait, a Chumash elder. Participants sang songs and blessed the new addition to the national park. The Channel Islands are the ancestral home of the Chumash. Santa Cruz Island is known as Limuw in the Chumash dialect, and Scorpion Anchorage was once the largest Chumash village, known as Swaxil. One of the most important exhibits highlights large photo murals of the seafaring culture of the Chumash, Limuw being the legendary birthplace of these Native Americans.

Referring to the Chumash, Congresswoman Lois Capps said, “Hopefully, people will learn to walk as softly as you have all these years.”

Audio-video features include everything from the turbulent geologic origins of the rugged archipelago to intimate first person accounts of island ranching, historical sheep shearing and restoration of natural resources involving the island fox, return of bald eagles, eradication of feral pigs and golden eagles, and recovery of native plants.

Former Santa Cruz Island landowner John Gherini donated artifacts, historic photographs and other items now in the ranch kitchen, which contains the island’s original stove and cabinets. Gherini was instrumental in planning the exhibits. He shares family stories of spending summers working the island ranch, building fences, herding thousands of sheep and sacking wool, all through a replica of the island phone system.

“This is truly a natural treasure,” said Gherini, whose family once owned the eastern 6,264 acres of Santa Cruz before it became a national park. “This is a dream come true, a great day for the Channel Islands National Park.”

The visitor center and array of exhibits were made possible through recreational fees collected at national park sites and designated by Congress to be used to improve public facilities in national parks. The exhibits were designed by Aldridge

Pears Associates, a design firm in Vancouver, B.C., and fabricated and installed by Exhibitology from New Jersey.

“We take great pride in preserving the natural and cultural heritage on the islands,” said Galipeau.   

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