As you drive west from Santa Barbara along the Pacific Coast, fighting your way through the commuter congestion of Goleta and the scrum of caffeine-addled students buzzing around the University of California campus, you quickly leave suburbia behind. Almost without warning, Highway 101 deposits you in a corner of California that time seems to have overlooked.

For the next 20 miles or so, empty hillsides climb toward the skyline on one side of the highway, while on the other side lies a gleaming cobalt sea. Occasional clots of cars parked near the lip of the seaside cliffs betray access trails leading to hidden surf spots and beaches below. There are a few houses, a couple of small state parks, and the occasional reminder of commercial oil development. But for the most part, the highway passes through a landscape that is remarkably empty given its proximity to some of the most coveted urban real estate on the planet.

In the hope of keeping it that way, conservationists have urged for more than a decade that the Gaviota coast be accorded formal protection as a national seashore. They almost got their wish, persuading Congress to authorize a study of that possibility five years ago. This spring, however, the federal government dashed their hopes by issuing a report concluding that such protection was warranted but “not feasible.”

The finding stands in stark contrast to the expansionary tendencies of the National Park Service during the Clinton administration and illustrates the growing influence of property-rights activists in the conservation arena now that elected officials sympathetic to their cause control the White House and both chambers of Congress.

A glance at a map confirms the windshield impression of the Gaviota region: Aside from railroad tracks and a rural road or two, the coastline is largely devoid of urban development from Goleta’s outskirts to Point Conception, where the ragged edge of California makes a 90-degree bend, and north as far as Santa Maria. For nearly 100 miles, the emptiness is interrupted only by the sleepy tentacles of rural Lompoc, a handful of ranches and the guarded gates of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Responding to requests from local conservationists and lawmakers, Congress directed the National Park Service (NPS) in 1999 to evaluate whether all or part of this area might qualify for inclusion in the national park system. The study began in January 2000, focusing on a 76-mile stretch of coast between Coal Oil Point at UC Santa Barbara and Point Sal near the northern boundary of Vandenberg Air Force Base. The study area encompassed about 215,000 acres, 41% of it privately owned, 46% inside Vandenberg, and the remaining 13% a mix of federal, state and county ownership.

The study process over the next two years involved meetings with local agencies, input from experts in the area’s ecology, history and geography, and a series of public forums. Reviewers quickly learned that, as proponents of protection had argued, the region possesses a remarkable suite of attributes.

According to the final NPS report, the study area “is part of one of the rarest global biomes … characterized by a mild Mediterranean climate caused by the interaction of global weather and cold-water upwelling on the west coast of a continent. It is one of only five such locations in the world (and) is the only location in the nation that features an ecological transition zone between northern and southern Mediterranean plant communities.”

Additionally, the report noted, the Gaviota area “is Southern California’s largest continuous stretch of rural coastal land and its healthiest remaining coastal ecosystem. Although the coastal area between Coal Oil Point and Point Sal comprises only 15% of Southern California’s coast, it includes approximately 50% of its remaining rural coastline.”

And there was more: The Gaviota coast contains such rare and endangered habitat as bishop pine forest, tanbark oak forest, valley oak woodlands, coastal sage-chaparral scrub, central maritime chaparral, native grassland, wetlands, riparian woodlands, coastal dunes and strand, and marine ecosystems such as kelp beds, sea grasses, and rocky marine intertidal zones. It also is home to an estimated 1,400 plant and animal species, including 24 federally or state-listed threatened or endangered plant and animal species and another 60 species of rare and special concern.

Given all these attributes, the report’s preliminary conclusion was not surprising:

“The natural and cultural resources of the area are nationally significant,” the review found, “meeting all four of the NPS criteria for national significance. The area is suitable for inclusion in the national park system, as it represents natural and cultural resource types that are not already adequately represented in the system or protected by another
land managing entity.”

But it was the next paragraph that so dismayed advocates of federal protection for the Gaviota region:

“The area is not a feasible addition to the national park system because sufficient land is not currently available to the NPS; strong opposition from study area landowners makes it unlikely that effective NPS management could occur; and the NPS is not able to undertake new management responsibilities of this cost and magnitude, given current national financial priorities.”

That’s the conclusion forwarded in March to the secretary of interior. Of those explanations, it was perhaps the one tucked in the middle that proved key. Although some local property owners supported the idea of a national seashore designation, others were livid over the idea and they drew the attention of anti-government and property-rights activists from around the country to their cause.

“We are afraid of losing our land, our occupations and our homes,” rancher Ken Doty, a member of the California Farm Bureau Federation board, told the federation’s Ag Alert newsletter. “The national seashore is an attempt to take control of our land and put it into federal hands.” Other landowners warned that a national seashore would attract hordes of visitors, violating residents’ privacy and threatening ecological resources.

To members of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, formed in 1996 to push for protection of the area, those fears were exaggerated. The greater threat, they argued, was that those same landowners would eventually try to cash in on the development potential of their coastal land.

“From the Coal Oil Point Reserve to El Capitan, conditions for classic urban sprawl are ripe,” the organization notes on its website. “The population growth on the South Coast, the steady increase in land values on our beautiful coastline, and the arrival of state water in Santa Barbara County all contribute to the threatening spread of urban sprawl.”

Gaviota Coast Conservancy:
Gaviota Coast feasibility study: