A Pristine Legacy : It's What He's Saved That Makes Outgoing Channel Islands Park Superintendent Proud

Times Staff Writer

When Bill Ehorn arrived in Ventura 15 years ago to take charge of the Channel Islands National Monument, the islands dotting the Santa Barbara Channel were mainly pristine clumps of clay with haunting seascapes and some plants and animals found nowhere else on earth.

And today, as Ehorn prepares to take the top job at Redwood National Park in Northern California, they still are.

He isn't shy about the achievement.

"I feel as if I've set aside these islands for all time," he said in an interview last week.

The National Monument has become a National Park. Ehorn's staff has grown from 5 to 78. The islands under his jurisdiction have increased from two to five, and his budget has jumped from about $164,000 to more than $2 million.

Meanwhile, the superintendent has left his imprint on the park--the 40th of 50 national parks in the United States and the only one in Southern California--in a hundred ways. He helped design the park's airy headquarters at Ventura Harbor, and its 60-foot research vessel. He helped draft legislation enabling park scientists to undertake exhaustive monitoring and measurement of all the species in his realm.

Strolling through the park's visitor center last week, Ehorn pointed to a continuously playing videotape showing, among other things, a diver holding aloft some sea creature. "That's me," he said.

And, even on his last day, he still was being consulted about workaday park problems. Barnacles had clogged the pump in the tide pool exhibit, turning the water murky and foul. What could be done?

Ehorn had a fair idea of the solution, since he had designed the exhibit.

In the early days, Ehorn "ran boats, dug pit toilets, performed maintenance and fought for more money, supplies and manpower," said Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) in a tribute he read into the Congressional Record.

"He has gone beyond what many would have to further the interests of the park," said Lagomarsino, who sponsored the bill that made Channel Islands a national park March 5, 1980.

That has not always pleased commercial fishermen. Many of them feel pinched by restrictions Ehorn imposed on fishing areas off the islands.

"He's the right man for the Park Service, but I'm not sure he's the right man for the fishermen," said Rudy Mangue, a Santa Barbara-based urchin diver who is active in the California Urchin Divers Assn. and founder of California Abalone Assn.

Mangue criticized Ehorn, whose jurisdiction spans waters a mile around each island, for needlessly closing off fertile fishing areas.

The park expanded during Ehorn's administration. The monument consisted just of Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands. Ehorn negotiated the $30-million purchase of Santa Rosa Island, and he helped to extend the park's umbrella over San Miguel and Santa Cruz, which is controlled by the park and by the Nature Conservancy.

But--despite his repeated enthusiastic assertions that "this is the greatest national park in America!"--Ehorn is moving on. Redwood National Park, home of the world's tallest tree--a 367-foot redwood--has beckoned, and Ehorn, who grew up in the shadow of its colossal timbers, has accepted. A successor likely will not be named for several months, he said.

He and his wife, Nancy, a park consultant who until last year was assistant superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, will build a house near his childhood home of Red Bluff. He has already plunged into the study of an environment more suited to squirrels than seals, a verdant setting where the park service and lumber companies have been at loggerheads for decades.

"It will be extremely challenging," said the tanned, ebullient 49-year-old Ehorn. "I've always felt that if I left here, that's where I would go."

Ehorn arrived at Channel Islands in 1974, after two years as a program analyst with the National Park Service in downtown Omaha. His rise up the Park Service ladder had been brisk, with a range of increasing responsibilities at Grand Canyon, Lassen Volcanic and Sequoia National Parks, and the superintendent's post at Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah.

From the outset, he had a clear view of his mission.

"Our public relations program was lousy," he said. "I had to go out and let people know we exist."

Sometimes, that happened in unfortunate ways.

Ehorn was at the center of a national storm in 1976, when he shot most of the burros on San Miguel Island. He said the feral burros, remnants of the island's defunct ranching operations, were rampaging through forests of delicate caliche, dead shrubs coated with blown sand and lime deposits. Moreover, most of the burros were crippled, apparently because of the lack of nutrients on the remote island, Ehorn said. The shooting was "the most reasonable" alternative, he concluded after an environmental assessment.

But when news of it leaked out, Ehorn was engulfed in a furor that he says "almost cost me my job." Animal-rights activists across the United States denounced him, contending that he should have moved the animals or let them be, rather than destroy them.

The conflict pointed up a problem fundamental to all the national parks. Each was established under a mandate that most of their lands be restored to their natural state--but over the years each has acquired "exotic" plants and animals as settlers have trekked through or put down roots.

The problem surfaced again on Santa Barbara Island in 1984, when Ehorn had rangers bearing portable spotlights and rifles lure rabbits out of the bush at night. "Cleveland Amory called and asked what in the hell we were doing," he said, referring to the well-known animal rights author. Ehorn explained that the shooting made more sense than other suggested methods, including the importation of a rare Australian flea that infected rabbits with a disease that caused them a grotesque, long and painful demise.

While foreign species took it on the chin, a few native species have made terrific comebacks. Brown pelicans on Anacapa Island are thriving again, although there was only one birth among them in 1972, Ehorn said. DDT-laden pesticide, which has since been banned, had been ingested by the birds, making their eggs unviable.

Ehorn and his staff closed off a section of Anacapa, even banning nearby boat traffic at certain times because engine noise disturbed the nesting pelicans.

While the pelican colony is succeeding, black abalone have been declining. For reasons nobody has pinned down, the shellfish have been dying in numbers that biologists consider alarming.

Even after Ehorn is plucked from the environment, the ups and downs of the species will continue. He said feral sheep and pigs must be removed from Santa Cruz Island, where the park service plans to build a pier, hiking trails and other amenities that will make it "the main island experience for most visitors."

Ehorn insists there has been no "main island experience" for him. Like a father trying to parcel affection among competing children, he reels off the virtues of each island: "I love 'em all. I love the caliche forests and the elephant seals on San Miguel. I love the roundups on the cattle ranch on Santa Rosa. And there's Arch Rock on Anacapa.

"I've been in a lot of country here that hardly any people have set foot in. Nothing will replace this experience."

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