Saving the Seagull Coast—Land&People

For thirty miles west from Santa Barbara, the Amtrak line hugs the coast, passing an extraordinary stretch of oceanfront where the Santa Ynez Mountains meet the sea. The ocean and beach here look as they did hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. Even from the train, the birdwatching is remarkable: kestrels, white-tailed kites, red-tailed hawks, and pelicans ply the sea breeze. Shorebirds crowd the water's shimmering edge and swirl in coordinated blinking clouds over the water. Dolphins arc out of the ocean below. A whale puffs a misty exhalation a few hundred yards offshore.

The Gaviota Coast, as it is known (the name means "seagull" in Spanish), defies powerful trends. Geologically, the coast follows the Santa Ynez Mountains on their east-west course, defying the north-south direction of most California coastal ranges. Biologically, many southern species reach their northern limit here, and many northern ones find their southern limit; and where they overlap, hybrids and unusual groupings of species form, defying biological norms.

But the Gaviota Coast's most atypical feature may be its resistance to the development that has overwhelmed so much of southern California's Pacific edge. The 180-mile stretch from San Diego to Santa Barbara is crowded with urban and suburban development. The frantic building activity only begins to wane a few miles west of Santa Barbara, and then, miraculously, the coast opens up; for miles and miles it is spectacularly intact. The Gaviota Coast encompasses 50 percent of the remaining rural coastline in southern California. While a small fraction of the land is protected in California state parks, most of it has been held in large, private cattle ranches.

And what a coast it is! Elevated mesas fall away in steep cliffs to spectacular stretches of remote beach. Near the eastern, or Santa Barbara, end of this east-west coast, lies Ellwood Mesa, where unusual vernal pool wetlands shelter rare plants and animals. Concentric rings of wildflowers encircle the pools as the water evaporates through the spring. Eucalyptus groves on Ellwood Mesa harbor the largest unprotected wintering site in California for monarch butterflies, which migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles from breeding grounds in California's Sierra Nevada or the prairies of Canada. Some years as many as 60,000 butterflies gather in the trees, hanging in bunches like giant clusters of fruit. As morning sunshine warms them, a cluster will burst into a colorful cloud as the butterflies scatter in search of water and food.

For conservationists, the presence of such a biologically rich, spectacular, and undeveloped coast so close to a growing population center presents an irresistible opportunity, but also a fleeting one. Within an easy commute of Santa Barbara, the coast is a prime development target, and several large development companies have purchased ranches there in recent years.

In 1999, recognizing the urgent need to protect the coast, local community groups launched an effort to promote a feasibility study for a national seashore. The study concluded that while the Gaviota Coast was worthy of national seashore designation, and while protecting the coast should be a top conservation priority, acquiring the land would be prohibitively expensive.

Meanwhile, residents of Santa Barbara County are doing what coastal residents across the country do when their best-loved coasts are endangered. They are getting organized, envisioning conservation possibilities, holding meetings, raising funds, writing and e-mailing their legislators, seeking help from national nonprofits such as the Trust for Public Land, and protecting the coastlines that they can protect, one property at a time.

Working together over the last few years, residents, governments, community groups, and TPL have protected one major property along the Gaviota Coast. The acquisition of 2,500-acre El Capitan Ranch will create an unbroken swath of public land from the existing El Capitan Beach State Park inland to the two-million-acre Los Padres National Forest. Protecting the ranch had been a dream of state park officials and local conservationists for 25 years. Within days of the announcement that $500,000 was needed to complete the transaction, the late Pierre Claeyssens, a well-known local philanthropist, offered a $250,000 challenge grant to jump-start the campaign. Over the next seven weeks, nearly 300 Santa Barbara area residents made donations, closing the funding gap to complete the project.

Even before the El Capitan transaction was completed, TPL announced to the community that Ellwood Mesa itself–home to the wintering monarchs–was available, if funding could be found for its purchase. Abutting both an existing housing development and the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the city of Goleta, Ellwood Mesa is sometimes referred to as the "Gateway to the Gaviota Coast." One plan, since scratched, proposed building 500 houses here. More recently, a plan to build 150 homes–some right up against the butterfly grove–was nearly implemented. Protests and legal challenges stalled it in the permit process.

Even though much of the mesa is privately owned, hundreds of joggers and hikers travel its trails daily. At the height of the butterfly season, hundreds more visitors come to see the butterflies, says Christine Lange, a local activist and founding member of Friends of the Ellwood Coast, a community group organized to work for the land's protection. The butterflies deserve a lot of credit for the land's imminent preservation, Lange says. "Without them it would have been a lot harder to get the commitment and attention we needed to keep this effort going for the past fifteen years."

The complicated deal TPL negotiated among the landowner, the City of Goleta, and a coalition of environmental groups would protect 137 acres on Ellwood Mesa and create, when added to existing protected land, two miles of contiguous public open space along the coast. In exchange, the landowner would receive cash and 36 nearby acres on which to build housing for the community. The developed area would not threaten important habitat, the butterflies, or Ellwood's vernal pools; nor would it block the bluffs or restrict access to the mesa.

To complete the transaction, however, TPL and the community needed to raise more than $20 million in government grants and private funds. Children in butterfly costumes kicked off the fundraising campaign, and donations large and small began pouring in. School groups sold cookies, and one class assembled and raffled off a quilt decorated with butterflies to support the project. A "jog-a-thon" was held to raise funds, and an artists' group sold paintings of the Ellwood property.

Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne recorded radio spots urging people to give to save Ellwood Mesa, and well-known protector of oceans Jean-Michel Cousteau encouraged people to "give, and give generously." A local couple urged guests at their wedding to make donations to support Ellwood in lieu of a gift. Local philanthropists gave generously, including Peter and Stephanie Sperling, who pledged $5 million, and Wendy P. McCaw, who pledged $1 million. In all, individuals contributed nearly $8 million over eight months.

This local generosity, combined with an infusion of public funds from California's Proposition 40, has made it likely that Ellwood Mesa will become public property within months.

Ellwood will be a major victory, but the job of conservation will continue to intensify on the Gaviota Coast, says TPL Project Manager Debra Geiler, who is already strategizing with governments, environmentalists, and landowners on ways to extend protection to more of this extraordinary coast. "When we see a stretch of undeveloped coast like this, we tend to assume that it must already be protected, that it will remain wild and beautiful forever," says Geiler. "That's not necessarily so. Development pressure is already strong here, and it's building. In five or ten years it may be too late. Our window of opportunity is now."

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Gordy Slack is freelance science and nature writer. He is a columnist and consulting editor at California Wild magazine and a contributor to several regional and national publications.