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Ironies of “public” access and land conservation

In the late 1970s, California established a Coastal Commission in order to direct and supplement conservation efforts along a coast threatened by population demands and rampant disregard for open space. The Commission was charged with the dual mandate of the preservation of natural resources and the promotion of public access. As one can imagine, this path has not always been the easiest to fulfill. However, the Coastal Commission’s ultimate duty must lay with the “protection of California’s significant coastal resources.” As time went on, the Commission would come to square off against private landowners, powerful real estate developers and radical environmentalists hell-bent on unrealistic purity. In late spring 2018, the Commission came to a legal settlement with an association of landowners on the Central Coast that highlighted the proper execution of the aforementioned mandate. It was believed that with the conclusion of the settlement, well, that was that. In response, the illiberal Left unleashed an opposition to the deal that ought to frighten all who care for the protection and conservation of the natural environment.

In a July 20 opinion piece published in the New York Times, Kathleen Sharp created an attack on the “pollution, waste and noise” that the owners inflict on the land. She attacks the Hollister Ranch owners as “racially discriminating.” The article soon became the shot heard round the world, and a plethora of public access groups descended on local representatives demanding the fence come down. Monique Limon, the assemblywoman who represents this area (lower Santa Barbara County) in the California Assembly, answered to the intense pressure from a small group of extremist activists. She implemented a “gut and amend” of a standard outdoor access grant bill, AB 2534, to include a stipulation that state funds be collected for an eventual eminent domain acquisition of a part the Hollister Ranch property. To preface just how reactionary this was, I actually spoke with Limon about the Hollister access issue when I met her in mid-June in Sacramento. She said she was waiting to see what happened and she did not know too much about the settlement that had been reached in the late spring. I believed her sincerity. But her response in the fallout of the New York times opinion piece is typical of the way the American political class has come to operate today.

When the need to signal virtue takes precedence over due process of the political system, we are in serious trouble. Limon amended the bill to undermine Hollister Ranch owners stewardship of the land in deference to the government. Such an approach completely undermines the role private citizens have played in land stewardship.  She knew that a settlement had been come to in the proper legal process with the Coastal Commission. She knew that many still enjoy the Hollister Ranch coast from boats (mainly to go surfing) and that the rest of the Gaviota coastline is widely accessible both to the north and south of Hollister. But in the final analysis she couldn’t resist usurping the proper political process in order to carry out the will of the vocal, extreme and short-sighted far left wing of the Democratic party ascendent in Sacramento. It is fitting final irony in the story of AB 2534 that one of the last vetoes of Governor Jerry Brown’s administration (who was governor when the Coastal Commission was originally chartered) was of this facade of a bill. He represents a breed of California Democrat that may be extinct in a few years.

Hollister Ranch by definition is exclusionary, but proper and balanced public access should not mean “paving another parking lot,” authorizing another tour bus, creating pedestrian tunnels and installing trash control and restroom facilities in the wilds of a pristine natural environment. However, this is the indirect goal of irresponsible and aggressive public access campaigns waged against Hollister. The property owners within are sincerely focused on environmental stewardship. The stewardship of these landowners is the only reason the Gaviota coast has not become ruined a la Orange County sprawl. As members of the public, we boat to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. We hike into the wilderness areas of our national forests. We boat or hike or paddle to the lineup in Big Sur and at Mavericks. We raft or paddle kayaks into the protected wild river areas. We skin or ski into the back snow country. No chair lifts, no cars, no buses, no parking lots, no restrooms, no day use concessionaires, no pollution and no despoiling nature. The proper stewardship of nature in as near an original state as possible, as the Hollister Ranch owners have pursued, is central to our shared environmental mandate.

Contact Max Minshull at mminshul ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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