He Rides Herd on Catalina Island : Conservancy 'Cowboy' Checks Up on Area's Flora, Fauna

Times Staff Writer

Doug Propst spent the day driving his Jeep up and down ridges and steep, rugged canyons through miles of back country in this nature sanctuary in the sea.

"Sometimes I do this on horseback. I like that," said Propst, 59, president of the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, a lifelong cowboy at heart.

He was checking the plants and animals, the roads, the reservoirs and ponds after the recent rains, "keeping an eye on how everything is doing. . . . "

The 6-foot-1 graying islander stopped the Jeep to examine a stand of red-barked, gnarled and twisted Catalina manzanita, a tree that grows nowhere else.

In the distance, a herd of buffalo grazed in a lush meadow, a dozen straggly goats scrambled up a steep cliff, a bald eagle soared overhead, harbor seals and sea lions basked in the sun on rocks in a quiet bay and migrating Pacific gray whales surfaced and breathed through blow holes as they passed near shore.

From Montana Ranch

Propst came to the island 33 years ago from a Montana ranch to cowboy here. When the cattle were removed four years later, he stayed on to head up the conservation program at this island 26 miles off the Los Angeles mainland.

When the Wrigley family donated 86%, or 42,135 acres, of the 76-square-mile, 21-mile-long island to the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy on Feb. 15, 1975, Propst was named the conservancy's president.

"Our mandate is to preserve the island's native plants and animals, the biological communities, geological and geographical formations," Propst explained.

As he looked at the manzanita he noted that there are eight trees, shrubs and plants on the island existing nowhere else in the natural state: species of manzanita, iron wood and mahogany trees, a sage-type plant called Yerba Santa, a wild tomato and St. Catherine lace, live forever and bedstraw plants.

One of the rarest trees in the world is a Catalina mahogany. Seven exist in a remote island canyon. That's it.

Since the establishment of the conservancy, scores of researchers, scientists, graduate students and others have come to the island to study the plants, animals, birds, insects and sea life.

"They have come to determine how to best understand, preserve and restore this unique eco system and environment," Propst said.

"The whole purpose of the conservancy sets aside 86% of the island in its natural state in perpetuity with public access by hiking and bike trails and campgrounds."

Camping Fee Is $5 a Day

The Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department operates campgrounds at Little Harbor and Black Jack Mountain. A permit is required and the fee is $5 a day.

The conservancy leases eight coves to the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, YMCA and other organized groups.

Thousands of boaters sail to the island throughout the year and anchor or tie up to moorings in quiet bays and coves embracing the 54 miles of coastline.

And thousands of others fly or come to the island on passenger boats to visit quaint Avalon and to hike and camp in the island's pristine back country. Avalon, with a population of 2,000, and the Isthmus, population 70, are the only two inhabited places on the island.

Some of the backpackers spend a week or more exploring the rugged island interior, trudging up and down steep goat trails.

A Special Time

Easter is a special time for islanders and visitors. Following recent rains the island is at its greenest. The hills are ablaze with brilliant colors of wild flowers in bloom.

Many families spend Easter week on the island as a tradition. There is an annual Easter egg hunt for island children.

Easter sunrise services sponsored by the Santa Catalina Island Woman's Club will be held this year as they have for more than 50 years at Mt. Buena Vista overlooking Avalon and the sea.

There are butterflies and insects here found nowhere else, sub species of mice and quail endemic to the island, an island fox the size of a house cat that climbs manzanitas to feast on the tree's little apples.

Entomologists come here to study Catalina crickets and island walking sticks. A group from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has made several trips to the island in search of an elusive shrew seen here only twice in the last century. The tiny mouse-like mammal with a long, pointed nose has yet to be found.

In the past the island was home to bald eagles and peregrine falcons. The conservancy has cooperated with the reintroduction of both.

"A pair of eagles built a nest two years ago, last year feathered it and did all the courtships but did not lay any eggs. We'll pop the cork when the first eaglets hatch out," Propst said.

Popular Field Trip Spot

Thanks to the conservancy, Santa Catalina Island has become a popular destination for school groups on field trips. Under construction at the airport-in-the-sky atop a 1,602-foot peak is the Catalina Conservancy Nature Center, an exhibit of the island's biology, history and geology.

The airport, part of the gift from the Wrigley family, is owned and operated by the conservancy. Pilots of light planes pay a $5 landing fee, $5 to stay overnight at the 3,250-foot strip. Last year there are more than 21,000 landings.

Many fly to the Airport-in-the-sky just for lunch, featuring buffalo omelets and buffalo burgers in a cafe run by the conservancy.

A free roaming herd of buffalo has been on the island since 14 of the animals were brought here in 1924 for the making of the film, "The Vanishing American." The herd has been upgraded through the years with introduction from time to time of new blood lines.

Each year, the herd is thinned to maintain about 300 animals. Catalina buffalo are annually shipped off the island to upgrade other herds and a few head are slaughtered for the airport cafe.

Wild boar, goat and deer have been introduced to the island over the past 200 years.

The conservancy is co-landlord with USC of historic Mount Ada, the Wrigley mansion overlooking Avalon. Mount Ada is now a bed-and-breakfast place with room prices ranging from $119 for the sleeping porch to $289 for a suite.

The conservancy has an annual operating budget of $1.6 million with income generated from organized group leases of coves, from mooring and camping fees, from a managed portfolio, airport revenue, memberships, donations and other sources. It publishes a quarterly called the Catalina Conservancy.

More than 600 boaters, horseback riders and pilots pay $100 a year as conservancy support group members. Another 900 members of the conservancy pay from $10 a year dues as student members to $25 as associate and $500 as sustaining associate.

Thirty full-time employees work for the conservancy as rangers, road crew, maintenance and office personnel. Terry Martin, 35, has been the conservancy's naturalist the past three years.

The conservancy is administered by a six-member board of directors: Doug Propst, Neil Kennedy, senior vice president of Union Bank; Steve Birch, retired chief executive officer for the California Land Title Co.; Al Martin, architect; Century City attorney Leon Cooper, and Malcolm Renton, former vice president of the Santa Catalina Island Co.

Propst said the conservancy is constantly trying to rid the island's interior of man-made objects. One-third of the cattle fencing from the days when Catalina was a big ranch in the sea has been removed, as the conservancy strives to achieve the most natural state possible.

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