Tuesday, February 9 , 2016, 5:46 pm | Fair 75º

Paradise Lost at Red Rock? Longtime Road Closure Limits Recreational Access

Reduced funding, limited staffing and several lawsuits have contributed to a backlog of work for the Los Padres National Forest

With Red Rock and the lower section of the Santa Ynez River Road still closed to vehicular traffic, the popular recreation area is accessible only to those capable of biking, walking or horseback riding.
With Red Rock and the lower section of the Santa Ynez River Road still closed to vehicular traffic, the popular recreation area is accessible only to those capable of biking, walking or horseback riding.  (Lori Rafferty / Noozhawk photo)

By Lori Rafferty, Noozhawk Contributor | @NoozhawkNews |

Summertime fog, gray gloom at the beach — what’s a family to do? As many Santa Barbara County residents and visitors alike know, that’s when you pack up and head over the hill to enjoy the inland heat and get wet at Red Rock. The only problem is, this hugely popular recreation area along the Santa Ynez River in the Santa Barbara District of the Los Padres National Forest is still closed to vehicular traffic.

Sure, you can get your family there if they are capable of biking, walking or horseback riding the 10-mile round-trip on asphalt to the final destination of Red Rock. But for those groups with young children, elderly and or handicapped members, their access is still denied.

So much for having an Adventure Pass, some say. The road closure of this lower section of the Santa Ynez River Road (Forest Road 5N18.2 as well as the upper Santa Ynez section) has never gone on this long before — now approaching a whole summer season — and recreation enthusiasts have been forced to crowd into the limited parking right before the first crossing and the even more limited parking at the Lower Oso picnic area. From there, the first eastern bridge is locked and it’s a long, hot haul back to Red Rock. Great for those who can make the trek on the road, not so great for the many more who can’t.

Paradise lost? Especially on weekends, traffic and parked vehicles have spilled out along narrow Paradise Road, causing congestion and safety problems not only for the Forest Service, campground users, the campground concessionaire staff as well as nearby local residents, but for the other agencies tasked with traffic enforcement and safety.

“This has created a whole new set of problems and issues, the most that the Forest Service and the county sheriff’s along with Search and Rescue have ever had to deal with,” said Douglas Dodge, district ranger of the Santa Barbara Ranger District/Los Padres National Forest.

And then there are the economic trickle-down effects. If you ask the folks who run the Paradise Store how this summer’s sharply limited access has affected their business, you’ll get a polite earful.

“We were so hopeful that this season was going to be a good summer for us because of the plentiful rains, but our business is definitely down, at least 50 percent during the week, not quite as bad on the weekends,” said Laura Armor, vice president and chief financial officer of the Paradise Store. “And this sure hurts us during these more challenging economic times.”

The people who work for Rocky Mountain Recreation who are permitted by the Forest Service to manage all of the campground and picnic areas also have a similar story to tell. They have been forced to lay off employees and had to cancel all reservations to the popular Upper Oso Campground, which had been solidly booked for every weekend since last December, a significant revenue loss.

Now that Upper Oso is finally open but only on a first come, first serve basis, area manager Celia Hancock noted that “a much higher percentage of people are still very upset and frustrated for not having their usual car access to the Red Rock area, much more so than the very small percent that are happy the road has been closed.”

The big question is why — why has a longtime, heavily used public access road for recreational use been unavailable for so long?

“It’s complicated,” Dodge said. “There have been a number of setbacks for us this year, including high water flows throughout the entire Los Padres Forest that have caused a much larger number of maintenance projects, heavy water flow at the Paradise Road crossing that pushed back the opening of Upper Oso, a lack of staff to deal with these issues due to dwindling budgets, and several lawsuits against us that have pulled away even more staff just to work on those … it’s all added up.”

About the lawsuits that no one wants to talk about. Lots of information is available on the Internet for those willing to untangle the maze of legal-speak. But in a nutshell, the Los Padres National Forest, as well as three other area forests in Southern California — the Cleveland, Angeles and San Bernardino — plus the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service as other co-defendants, were found in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The groups or plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit included a local group called Los Padres ForestWatch, in addition to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the California Native Plant Society.

How does this apply in particular to the Santa Barbara Ranger District (one of five districts in the whole Los Padres National Forest)? It basically means the agency has to respond to this litigation and complete more administrative paperwork, such as detailed Environmental Assessments over a six-month deadline. While government agencies are hardly known for being perfect, they are now further hindered by decreased budgets and severely limited staff. In direct terms for the Los Padres, where each district has already lost one staff biologist during the past few years, the few remaining biologists — only three — are pulled away from their regular work.

“Having to deal with litigation is affecting our ability to work on the ground,” Dodge said.

Where are we now? With water levels at the first crossing finally lower, to regain the usual vehicle access back to Red Rock will require some simple structural bridge work. The first bridge out of the lower Oso area, known as the Lower Oso Bridge, took a heavy hit from high stream flow this year and has been undermined and deemed unsafe for car travel. Until funding is secured and a construction contract is issued, the bridge will remain closed.

Looking ahead to next year, more predicted budget cuts and increased administrative red tape, the Forest Service is slowly seeing its abilities decline to effectively manage watershed resources along with public recreational uses.

“There is no more fat to trim,” Dodge said. “Now it’s more like taking limbs off the body.”

So before you want to take your family back to the Santa Ynez River — the only large river in the county that offers residents and visitors National Forest recreation opportunities such as a family swim, call the Los Prietos Ranger Station to check the status of road conditions. According to the Los Padres website, “Visitors are encouraged to plan ahead and contact the Los Prietos Ranger Station for the latest conditions by calling 805.967.3481.” You can also get updates on its website by clicking here.


Funding was allocated Thursday for the Lower Oso bridge project. While Los Padres is facing a $550,000 budget deficit, all other projects will be priority based, including the need to pay existing salaries. Construction on the bridge will begin as soon as a contract can be awarded, and all work is expected to be completed this fall.

If it matters to you that national forest recreational opportunities are slowly declining in your area, contact your local U.S. House and Senate representatives as well as county supervisors to weigh in on decreased access, lack of funding, budget cuts and increased litigation costs.

Recent Los Padres Forest closures because of lawsuits: Click here for the Ojai Ranger District, and click here for the Santa Barbara District.

— Lori Rafferty is a contributing freelance photojournalist with a zoology and environmental studies background (1982 UCSB) who enjoys all aspects of recreation in local forests. She has been documenting forest regrowth since the Zaca Fire of 2007.

» on 08.12.11 @ 02:14 PM

Los Padres ForestWatch, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the California Native Plant Society. These groups as well as Nature Conservancy, Ocean Conservancy, Heal the Bay, Coastal Keepers, The Packard Foundation, Green Peace, ect are responsible for ruining our access in this state.  The above listed groups have successfully tricked the people into closing off and giving up there constitutional rights to access the channel islands, most of the Los Padres and countless other areas, all in the name of Saving the Earth/Ocean/Creek.. whatever, fill in the blank….  Why do people back these insidious groups when all they really care about is gaining grant money through whatever they can talk people into letting them close off for study.  Now this latest set of law suits against an already bankrupt impoverished state has closed off the few areas where free family recreation could be enjoyed. Costing our state, city and county more money and more jobs in these trying economic times.  I would like to know when the people of California will wake up a start reading the petitions they sign and realize that “save the ocean” or “save RedRock” really means close off theses areas so the eco-nazi’s can gain funding.  The term is “Green Terrorism.”

» on 08.15.11 @ 05:24 PM

The author is being disingenuous here. Ms Rafferty blames the lack of access to Red Rocks on the lawsuits by the environmental groups, yet she states that the funding for the bridge at Lower Oso (damaged by the winter storms, not by Forest Watch) arrived very recently. Lawsuit or not, the access could not have been provided until the bridge is repaired.

» on 08.15.11 @ 07:09 PM

Now you are just splitting hairs.

» on 08.16.11 @ 02:46 PM

The story clearly states the lack of access was due to a combination of factors, magnified by lawsuits and the lack of money the FS had to divert from other projects. The author looks to be presenting the facts as given by the Forest Service, not blaming anybody. It’s not rocket science to figure this all out: as Dodge says, money to address lawsuits clearly takes money away from other projects= duh… so no wonder the funding to fix this bridge finally came through. Bottom line looks to me= the public is losing access.

» on 08.20.11 @ 02:27 AM

I really wish they would leave the road closed, as does everyone you meet out on the trail these days.  Visiting Red Rocks this summer was glorious - much (but not all) of the riff raff was kept out, along with their trash, graffiti, broken glass, and obnoxious attitudes.  There are plenty of drive-to places along Paradise Road that are pretty nice and can be used by families, rowdy drinkers, etc.  And as for handicapped - no handicapped person can hike or use a wheelchair on the cobblestone path to Red Rock, so what is the point.  Fix the bridge if need be but KEEP THE ROAD CLOSED.

» on 08.25.11 @ 12:09 PM

Wow- the tone from River sounds like they think they are somehow better and more deserving than “them”, or I mean us “riff raff”.  Get it straight, there is a big difference between roads and trails, and in this case particularly a road that has been used by the public- “us”- for more than a century. Also there are definitely NOT plenty of drive-in places along Paradise Road, roughly half are only open right now. Very nice handicap accessible picnic areas are offered in further towards Red Rock, and all those areas have ample parking, trash cans, and bathrooms- remodeled not so long ago, now sitting there unavailable because of some petty lawsuits. What is the point? The point is this: in a growing population, it is stupidly ludicrous to close and limit public access into national forest/public use areas that have had it already, and with minimal impact on the environment— no one is building a new road here into a wilderness area. Not everyone hikes or is capable of hiking, so River if you want to experience your own personal vision of swimming in a river and you don’t like Red Rock, there are plenty of other places to hike into, go find them… you are definitely in the minority.

» on 09.16.11 @ 05:02 PM

Everyone who is an American citizen has the right to access any national forest as this land has been entrusted to all of us and the PUBLIC owns this land.  It’s a shame that in recent time both the forest service and all these environmental groups are working against this right of access of the true owners, the American public.  The public always gets screwed over on so many levels, but most of all we are losing access while the SOB’s play their legal and monetary games while trying to convince us they are somehow helping out.  It’s really a big pile of steamy defecation both sides are feeding the American public!
The forest service is determined to capitalize on the public’s desire to visit this land by over charging us (in most cases illegally) to access and over regulating the public land that the PUBLIC owns.  They are trying to charge us to access land that we already pay for in our taxes.  We also pay for the roads and fire suppression via taxes yet the forest service tries to make us think we need to pay again and goes so far as to break the law and lie to the unknowing public.  They are aware they are doing this and they know it’s illegal and they know the Fed’s will do just about nothing to stop them as they are completely dysfunctional. 
These environmental groups are no better. They want to shut off access to the public under the guise of protecting the plants, animals, and natural resources by bring law suits that rape money from public funds for needless studies to simply clear the roads of gravel and debris that wash into the crossings during storms.  What we have here is groups of people who are trying to make names for themselves and are plain old screwed up in the head!
It’s a very bad situation because the federal government really doesn’t care, and do be honest can’t handle all the other things they have on their plates.  Both main parties(I’ve spoken to both) pretend to care but when it comes down to is they are only willing to blame the other sides and add you to their mailing lists so they can spam you with all the good things they are doing, none of which have anything to do with the public wild lands of America.  So, in the mean time the forest service, the USDA, the BLM, and all these self serving environmental groups continue to run amuck destroying what we once cherished and enjoyed by over charging, over regulating, and keeping us out.
The time has come for an American Spring!

» on 09.17.11 @ 12:53 PM


» on 09.20.11 @ 07:37 PM

This is one-sided journalism at its worst. The reporter, Lori Rafferty, quotes the Forest Service throughout the article but doesn’t bother to contact any environmental organization representatives for this story, even though she calls out five of them by name and claims that they are somehow responsible for the closure of Red Rock.

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