Convict Thwarts Reagan on Cave Paintings

Times Staff Writer

As a beloved ex-President, Ronald Reagan almost always gets what he wants these days.

But this week, one of Reagan’s personal wishes was blocked by a federal convict with a typewriter.

Last Friday, Reagan personally telephoned the National Park Service in Washington to add his support to proposed national historic landmark status for a mitten-shaped hill in the Santa Monica Mountains that includes prized Chumash Indian cave paintings.


But on Monday, when the Park Service’s advisory board met, it concluded that its hands were tied. The owner of the land, Ronald Semler, who has veto power over landmark designation, had written a letter opposing the proposed designation.

“I have had my fill of U.S. government bureaucrats and U.S. government employees,” Semler’s letter said. “I have had more than enough experiences, all of them negative.”

Pleaded Guilty

Semler, 44, is sitting in Lompoc Federal Prison after pleading guilty to charges stemming from an indictment alleging that his North Hollywood export company sold helicopters to North Korea.

Procedurally, landmark status does not mean much. It offers no protection when the landmark is on private property.

In the wake of Semler’s opposition, the Park Service’s National Park Advisory Board could do no more than get Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. to declare the cave paintings “eligible for designation.” That assured only that federal agencies must pay heed to the cave’s existence if they engage in construction nearby.

However, in the minds of anthropologists and historians conversant in the history of the 15,000 Chumash Indians who once flourished from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo counties, the lack of landmark status is a severe disappointment.

According to these experts, the cave paintings on Semler’s 360-acre Saddlerock Ranch above Malibu include an imagination-stirring scene that captures one of California’s most important slices of history.

Among a hundred pictographs of animals, celestial objects and medicine men on rock walls, beneath a massive pink-boulder roof, is a depiction of four men on horses--animals that were not found here until Spanish explorers began settling California in the mid-18th Century.

First Meeting

The images are widely believed to represent the first meeting between Chumash Indians and one of two early parties of Spanish settlers who trekked from Mexico through California: Gaspar de Portola, who, accompanied by Father Junipero Serra, led an expedition to establish missions in 1769, or Juan Bautista de Anza, who commanded 240 men, women and children on a journey in 1775 that led to the founding of San Francisco. Some historians say descriptions in diaries kept by Portola’s party conform dramatically to the Indians’ paintings.

“It’s very important for this to be designated as a landmark. This is the first time that an Indian portrayed a man on horseback,” said Campbell Grant, a Carpinteria author who is a leading authority on Indian rock art in North America.

‘Chumash Monument’

“There is no other place in Chumash territory where you have a European motif intermixed with the Chumash motif,” said John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. “It is sort of a Chumash monument in the way we want to make it a national landmark.”

Chumash rock paintings, believed to be as old as 2,000 years at some locations, recorded significant cultural and sacred events. To acquire the bright colors needed for the paintings, the Chumash ground minerals, such as limonite and hematite; mixed them with water, animal fat or plant juice, and daubed cave walls with elaborate narratives in yellow, white, black, red and blue-green paints.

Reagan had long been aware of the historic value of the Saddlerock Ranch’s Chumash site because he once owned the adjoining Yearling Row ranch, subsequently purchased by the state as part of Malibu Creek State Park. He often rode horses on Saddlerock property during his acting days, according to Mark D. Weinberg, a spokesman at Reagan’s Century City office, and Grant Gerson, co-owner of Calamigos Ranch in Malibu.

In 1980, the Park Service attempted to buy Semler’s ranch, which it viewed as a potentially choice section of the new Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. But Semler refused, saying he wanted to live there. He subsequently made the property less attractive to park planners by building a two-story home and planting 11,000 avocado trees on the hillsides.

Nearby ranch owner Gerson said he believed that Semler’s refusal to sell the land was based on principle, not money, and said Semler had been “wonderful” about permitting private outdoor-education programs to view the cave paintings.

Strike a Deal

But David Brown, a Malibu-area civic activist and adviser to the Sierra Club, said he believed that the Park Service might have been able to strike a deal with Semler if the agency’s hands had not been tied by budget cuts during the Reagan Administration. The cuts eliminated three-quarters of the Santa Monica Mountains park’s acquisition budget between 1980 and 1986.

“I see a great deal of irony” in Reagan seeking federal recognition of a site that could have been taken out of private hands and protected under an Administration more respectful of parks, Brown said.

One advocate of protecting the Chumash site who caught Reagan’s ear was Courtney Trisler, who once worked on the Saddlerock Ranch before Semler purchased it and now works on Reagan’s Santa Barbara ranch.

For the last decade, Trisler has been the most passionate advocate for the caves. Two years after negotiations between the Park Service and Semler broke down, Trisler wrote a letter to Saudi Arabian billionaire Sheik Mohammed al-Fassi asking for a donation to help purchase the ranch. The sheik did not reply, but his brother-in-law, Prince Turki bin Abdul Azziz, sent $200.

Asked Questions

“Courtney drove us absolutely wild pressing for this (landmark designation), but we never took him seriously until gradually he wore us down, and we started to ask questions (about the cave paintings) of honest-to-God archeologists,” said Ben Levy, manager of the Park Service’s national historic landmarks program, who said Reagan alluded to Trisler when he telephoned the Park Service last week.

“When Ronald and Nancy Reagan hired me four years ago, I mentioned the cave to them and they both said they’d been inside it,” Trisler said.

He said that he saw Reagan at his ranch last week and told him about the upcoming advisory board meeting and urged him to lend his support.

To Semler, the obsessive Trisler was someone to be dismissed as “a pain,” a characterization he made in 1982.

But Semler began having more pressing pains in the mid-1980s. Federal investigators began probing reports that Semler’s import firm, Associated Industries, was selling scores of Hughes helicopters to North Korea in violation of the federal Trading With the Enemy Act.

False Statements

After being indicted by a federal grand jury, Semler and his brother, Monte Barry Semler, pleaded guilty last year to lesser charges that included making false statements in export declarations. Ronald Semler drew a three-year sentence.

Last fall, Semler attempted to arrange an early release by asking a federal judge to let him trade his remaining jail time to run a $900,000 community service program for poor children with learning disabilities at his ranch. The judge turned him down.

Thus it was with evident bitterness that Semler--typing on Saddlerock Ranch stationery--sent the Park Service a letter saying thanks but no thanks to the proposal to make the Chumash rock art site a national landmark.

“I do not want, need or wish to have any further dealings with government agencies or government bureaucrats,” he wrote, adding that he believes that he has taken great pains to preserve the Indian art, and concluding:

“I, of course, will not be attending your meeting on April 24 on this matter.”.