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Nick Tonkin: NPS Draft Plan for Channel Islands Would Put Conservation at Risk

Earlier this year I was hiking on Santa Rosa Island in Channel Islands National Park. Two friends and I were enjoying a spectacular spring day — blue skies, warm sunshine, the rolling hills and open, unspoiled vistas, the peace, quiet and solitude. Our destination was Lobo Canyon, a magical hiking trail now, but for thousands of years home to the Chumash native people, who found refuge from the island’s harsh winds in the canyon’s lush, protected interior.

As we walked, in silence, I pondered the fact that I was following in the footsteps of the oldest humans of which evidence has been found in North America; 13,000 years had passed since Arlington Springs Woman walked the same path we trod, and the existential meditation the scene inspired was weighty, indeed.

Suddenly the quiet was shattered by the rumble of a motor in low gear. We turned to see a white SUV, the two front seats occupied by smartly dressed young men wearing collared shirts emblazoned with “Channel Islands Aviation.” It was odd, because the SUV was a National Park vehicle. The four passengers in the back, who had arrived on the island by air, were being ferried down to the same trailhead we were approaching. I wiped my brow as we chatted for a minute, then stepped aside to allow the Suburban to proceed.

Let me tell you, there is nothing like having to jump out of the way of an SUV full of affluent tourists who have flown in, and have only an hour to "do" the park, to ruin your wilderness experience. Really, you couldn’t invent a caricature more perfect to decry the commercialization of a sacred space like Santa Rosa Island, yet that will be the future if the National Park Service has its way.

In the draft long-range management plan for Channel Islands National Park just released by the NPS, two of the three alternatives proposed, including the “NPS preferred alternative,” call for establishment of a vehicular transportation concession on Santa Rosa Island. But that’s not all. The NPS bureaucrats, always on the hunt for new revenue streams to fatten their own budgets, also plan to build hotel accommodation at Bechers Bay, using both the historic Vail & Vickers ranch buildings and new buildings to be constructed, as well as “food service.”

While most of the island would be designated as officially protected wilderness, “corridors” would remain open to vehicle traffic throughout, enabling, among other examples given in the document, excursions to Lobo Canyon and transportation to a permanent campsite on the south side to be constructed.

It is already possible to hike Lobo Canyon. It is already possible to camp on the south beaches of the island, arriving on foot or by kayak. You just have to be willing to invest the time and the energy. No one would countenance a “corridor” through, say, the Ansel Adams Wilderness, so that the well-heeled and busy could be whisked in SUVs up to the alpine meadows for a photo op. Yet that is exactly what the Park Service is proposing to do with the Channel Islands. Why here?

The National Park Service will tell you that it is to increase access, but access is as easy as buying a ticket on the ferries that already operate. The truth is that Channel Islands National Park is the least visited park in the country, and the local, district and regional bureaucrats responsible for it are trying to boost numbers in order to get a bigger share of the federal parks budget. Let’s be clear: The park gets fewer visitors than others because it consists of rugged, undeveloped offshore islands that are hard to get to and don’t offer any amenities.

For those who do visit there, that is precisely the appeal of the place. People who want lodging, food service, SUV transportation and other amenities already have a Southern California option: Catalina. The northern Channel Islands are a rare, quiet oasis of solitude and timeless beauty, available today for those who want to be there. Let’s keep it that way!

Alternative No. 1 under the draft plan would keep the islands’ management plan as it is, emphasizing resource conservation and habitat restoration, with boat and airplane transportation access as well as extensive camping opportunities.

Please support this option, see what the NPS is planning and make your opinion heard at the two public open houses scheduled on the plan — in Ventura at the Park Visitor Center at 6 p.m. Tuesday and in Santa Barbara in the Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Details about the hearings, as well as the plan itself, are available online by clicking here, where you can submit comments through Jan. 9, 2014.

— Nick Tonkin is a longtime Santa Barbara resident.

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