Channel Islands National Park plan could bring new development, amenities

by Alex Wilson

The future of Channel Islands National Park is coming into greater focus with the recent approval of a new General Management Plan and Wilderness Study. Some people who love visiting the unique park are excited about new recreational opportunities, while others fear new development or official wilderness designation could lead to detrimental changes.

Park Superintendent Russell Galipeau says that creating a new management plan requires striking a balance between conservation and recreation.

“There are some people who say, ‘Can you make it look more like Catalina?’ Well, it takes a lot of money to make it look and operate like Catalina,” says Galipeau. “Some people, on the other hand, are saying ‘There’s already too much development out there.’ It’s always that balance of managing the natural resources, and the cultural resources, while providing for enjoyment.”

The most dramatic proposals in the plan involve Santa Rosa Island. The park’s first hotel could be established by a concessionaire, which might attract visitors who are unwilling or unable to camp out. A vehicle transportation system might also be offered for commercially operated tours and shuttling campers to remote parts of the 84-square-mile island. A retail food service facility could free visitors from having to bring everything they need to eat.

A new campground for up to 75 people might be built south of the historic ranch at Bechers Bay. It would be much closer to the pier than the island’s current campground in Water Canyon, which requires a 2-mile hike. Another campground could be constructed at the site of a former U.S. Air Force base at Johnson’s Lee, on the island’s southern tip.

Other big changes proposed in the plan could impact remote San Miguel Island. Airplane transportation might be offered, in addition to the service now provided between Camarillo Airport and Santa Rosa Island. A small campground near Point Bennett might provide better access to the world’s largest pinniped rookery, where up to six species can be spotted, including fur seals and Steller sea lions.

A variety of developments could be in store for the park’s most visited island destination, Scorpion Valley on Santa Cruz Island. A historic barn might be renovated to display ranching exhibits. A new presentation area might be built for evening programs. New facilities for kayakers could include showers, changing rooms and a small store to sell items like snacks and sunscreen.

A historic warehouse building near the pier at Prisoners Harbor on Santa Cruz Island might be rehabilitated and used as a visitor contact and orientation center. A new campground with sweeping ocean views is proposed on a nearby hillside. An education center for school groups with tent platforms, cooking areas and a pavilion for presentations, is also envisioned.

Santa Cruz Island’s historic Smugglers Cove could feature a new campground that would be accessible by backpacking from Scorpion Valley. The 19th-century Smugglers adobe has already been restored and could support a campground. Plans are being developed to protect other cultural resources in the area, including a historic olive grove.

On the mainland, the Robert J. Lagomasino Visitors Center in Ventura Harbor could be expanded in significant ways. Nearly 150,000 people experienced the park through the exhibits currently on display there during 2015, while about 200,000 made it onto the islands.

Maintenance operations would be moved to another location in the harbor, as well as five park service boats. That would free up room to build a large auditorium, allowing more people to take part in the park’s interactive distance learning program, Channel Islands Live, which provides a connection between the islands and mainland. The docks there now could be converted for use by private boaters and a water taxi.

New facilities could include classrooms, lab facilities and office space for educators and scientists. A sea life exhibit might also be built to give people an opportunity to encounter wildlife up close without traveling to the islands.

Park officials additionally hope to create backcountry management plans for the islands. They could help map out networks of small backpacking campgrounds on Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and San Miguel islands, to expand opportunities for extended adventures.

The prospect of backpacking to more remote areas is exciting for frequent park visitors like Ventura resident Don Kress, who leads Boy Scout trips to Santa Cruz Island every year.

“Anything that could provide a reliable place to rest for the night would be a welcome thing, and add another way-point to a multiday hike,” says Kress.

Other people worry about impacts from new campgrounds. Marla Daily is president of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the cultural history of the Channel Islands. The foundation focuses on safeguarding artifacts related to ranching history on all eight Channel Islands.

Daily says that building a new campground too close to historic buildings on Santa Rosa Island would be a mistake. “Any campgrounds that are built must take into consideration cultural sites, both archaeological and historic. Putting a campground too close to the historic main ranch would be a visual blight,” says Daily.

Another controversy surrounds the proposal to establish the first official wilderness areas in the park. Some people feel it’s unnecessary because the islands’ remoteness already makes them feel like wilderness. Others think it could create safety risks and hamper evacuations.

Wilderness offers the highest level of conservation for federal lands. For land to be designated wilderness, it must have little evidence of human habitation and appear to be generally shaped by the forces of nature. Ranch areas and roads are ineligible for inclusion. The use of motorized vehicles and machinery is also restricted.

Park officials say wilderness designation could enhance the solitude of the islands, and give visitors a closer connection to the ancient past and natural resources. Galipeau says there are about 180 miles of roads on Santa Rosa Island, and some could be converted to foot trails.

“How many of those roads do we really need? And can we really maintain all those roads? And are they really impacting the backcountry users? They think they’re having this great wilderness experience and all of a sudden the ranger truck shows up, and they get a little dusted, and we apologize to them. But what if we didn’t have that ranger truck there, and the road was more like a trail,” says Galipeau.

The plan says 99 percent of Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara Islands is eligible for federal wilderness designation.

Two of the three Anacapa Island islets are 100 percent eligible, since they’ve never been extensively developed and are managed as nature preserves.

Only 23 percent of Santa Cruz Island would be eligible because most of it is owned by the Nature Conservancy.

San Miguel Island is ineligible since it’s owned by the U.S. Navy.

Some of the opposition to wilderness designation involves a desire to preserve widely dispersed, historic ranch features, like corrals, fences and outbuildings.

Retired United States Congressman Robert J. Lagomarsino wrote the legislation establishing the park back in 1980. He opposed wilderness designation in a letter he wrote to the National Park Service during February of 2014.

“The island owners did a great job of preserving these unique ranches-in-the-sea before the park was created. That is why there was something to preserve for the future. It is the responsibility of the National Park Service to appropriately honor those ranchers and their island heritage. Wilderness designation is incompatible with this responsibility,” wrote Lagomarsino.

Galipeau says the plan is to remove very few ranch buildings and use others for different purposes. “In most cases, what we want to do is maintain them. But the best way to maintain them is to adaptively reuse them. Because otherwise, if you’re putting a lot of money into a structure that’s going to sit there and nobody’s going to use it, you wonder then, what’s the purpose of maintaining it?” says Galipeau.

Galipeau says designation of wilderness areas could also protect land from future development. “If you really don’t want to see development like you see on Catalina Island, this would make sure that doesn’t happen. If you don’t want to see roads paved, this would make sure that doesn’t happen. If you don’t want to see a future park manager pop in an airstrip, that won’t happen,” says Galipeau.

Any wilderness designation would require congressional action, and it remains unclear when that might happen.

Other concerns about the plan have been raised by Chumash Indians, whose ancestors lived on the islands for over 13,000 years. They’re worried that new development could unearth ancient burial sites, or harm the island environment in other ways.

Chumash ceremonial elder Mati Waiya, says the islands are a spiritual homeland. “For us, the islands represent a continuum of our relationship to our ancestors, and the connection to our world and resources, and our responsibility to protect the spirit of our people,” says Waiya.

He believes the document should have included more proposals to honor his culture. “They talk about campsites and trails, and kayaking, and redoing adobes into Spanish-style facilities. But they never really mention a cultural center or a Chumash village interpretive area. There’s such a denial of recognition,” says Waiya.

Park officials say they’re sensitive to Waiya’s concerns, and that most development will be confined to areas that have already been substantially altered by more recent human activities like ranching. Galipeau says protecting Chumash culture will remain a priority.

“I think it’s really important that we work with the Chumash people,” says Galipeau. “When we understand that there’s significant archaeology or a village site we need to protect that.”

Concessionaires are generally supportive of the plan.

Island Packers Cruises transports most park visitors from Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors. Fleet Manager Alex Brodie says the islands only reach capacity on summer holiday weekends, and efforts to entice more people are welcomed.

“At this time we don’t believe there’s too much visitation even at Scorpion,” says Brodie. “Most of the time this is a pretty underutilized national park. It’s one of the least-visited national parks in the country.”

Brodie says Island Packers could add additional vessels to the four it now operates, if needed to meet future visitor demand.

He also supports the idea of lodging and motorized transportation on Santa Rosa Island, but thinks they would pose challenges for any operator. “The only issue that I see is, financially I don’t think it’s a viable operation, because the distance offshore and the remoteness of the islands make it pretty difficult,” says Brodie.

The 550-page document will help determine how the islands are protected and developed over the next several decades.

Completing all the projects could cost about $62 million, but the funding sources still need to be identified.

The park’s current annual budget is about $7.3 million. If all the changes suggested in the plan are made, future ongoing operational costs for the park could rise to around $14 million a year, taking inflation into account. Seventeen people would be added to the park’s current staff of 70.

Some of the larger projects will require additional environmental review and public input. It’s not yet clear which changes will happen first.

Many regular park visitors, like Kress, are hopeful that concepts outlined in the plan will lure more people to the islands.

“I encourage people all the time to go out there. I’m surprised by how many people have never been, even though it’s 15 miles away,” says Kress. “It’s an awesome place and has lots of natural history. It’s unique and quite beautiful, so I encourage as many people as possible to go out there.”

Elephant seal pups on San Miguel Island. Photo by Tim Hauf

Elephant seal pups on San Miguel Island.
Photo by Tim Hauf

What’s being proposed

Historic lighthouse opened to public with accompanying exhibit
Number of campers allowed reduced from 30 to 25 per night for better camping experience and restoration of natural habitat
Additional housing units for park personnel
Wilderness proposed for Middle and West Anacapa Islands

Fixed-wing aircraft permitted to land on existing airstrip for day-use visitors and campers
Guided multiday trips to pinniped breeding grounds at Point Bennett
Primitive campground established near Point Bennett
No wilderness designation proposed since island is U.S. Navy property

Continued emphasis on restoration of terrestrial resources
Small seawater desalination facility to reduce costs of transporting fresh water from mainland
Wilderness proposed for 99 percent of island

New campgrounds at Prisoners Harbor and Smugglers Cove
Kayak staging area at Scorpion Cove, with showers and snack bar
Satellite kayak staging area at Prisoners Harbor for trips to Scorpion Cove and back
Historic warehouse at Prisoners Harbor used as visitor contact and orientation center
Education center at Prisoners Harbor with tent platforms and pavilion
Wilderness proposed for 23 percent of island

Concessionaire-operated lodging
New campgrounds at Bechers Bay and Johnson’s Lee
Commercial vehicle transportation system
Reuse of ranch buildings into visitor serving areas
Food and beverage service
Wilderness proposed for 99 percent of island

Expanded visitor services, including education center with large auditorium
Relocation of maintenance operations and boats
Dock space converted for use by visiting boaters and water taxi