DISPLEASURE ISLAND : Missing link: Twenty miles off the Ventura coast, Santa Cruz Island would complete the five-island chain designated in 1980 as Southern California's first national park. But Francis Gherini owns part of the island and won't sell his share.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Someday, taxpayers, this will all be yours--the tide pools, the pelicans gliding past San Pedro Point, the sun-bleached sheep skulls in the sand at Smugglers Cove, the lone orange tree at Scorpion Anchorage.

But this is the Gherini Ranch, not Gilligan's Island. On the slopes beyond that orange tree lie thousands of acres laid bare by drought and foraging feral sheep. And behind this island lies a tangled history of human dispute and litigation that has divided a family, entangled a former secretary of the interior and threatens to delay completion of Southern California's first national park.

"Isn't it sad?" asks Cheryl Wendel, whose boat-cruise company, Island Packers, took about 3,000 visitors to Santa Cruz Island last year.

"It's real hard to take people out to Santa Cruz," she says. "They see what's happening."

Santa Cruz Island, four times the size of Manhattan and 20 miles west of the Ventura coastline, is the last link in the five-island chain that Congress designated as a national park in 1980. Since then, the National Park Service has been working to buy up or take control of all the islands and has succeeded everywhere but the eastern 6,264 acres of Santa Cruz Island, where San Pedro Point, Smugglers Cove and Scorpion Anchorage lie.

Last month, the Park Service bought a one-quarter interest in that eastern acreage and announced plans to buy the rest by September of next year.

But that announcement overlooked Francis Gherini.

And Francis Gherini, a 75-year-old Oxnard attorney who owns one-fourth of that acreage, has for years been arguing with the Park Service, the California Coastal Commission and his own family over the island property.

"We are differently situated, and therefore differently motivated," Gherini explains, referring to frayed relations in his family.

"There have been intense family disagreements. You can put it that way," says his nephew John Gherini, a Santa Barbara attorney who has become a spokesman for those in the Gherini family who oppose Francis' position. "He has caused some substantial problems."

Among his allies, however, Francis Gherini counts William P. Clark Jr., who served as secretary of the interior from 1983 to 1985--overseeing, among other agencies, the National Park Service.

Clark, a longtime family friend who is now an attorney with the firm Rogers & Welk, has held repeated discussions with Park Service officials about Gherini's position. He has also been named in court documents as Gherini's legal representative in the matter.

Clark maintains that he has not been acting as an advocate or as Gherini's legal counsel, but as a "friend of the court." But several federal officials, including Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) and Channel Islands National Park Supt. C. Mack Shaver, see him in Francis Gherini's corner.

"His role," said John Gherini of Clark, "remains somewhat a mystery."

But observers on all sides agree that unless Francis Gherini makes a grand compromise or federal officials make a hefty increase on their current tentative offer of $3.87 million for his quarter-interest in the property, the negotiations could deteriorate into a costly and lengthy legal condemnation case. And Santa Cruz Island's tradition of discord could live on a while longer.

From a helicopter 500 feet over Santa Cruz Island, it's easy enough to pick out the Gherini Ranch.

The island is surrounded by spectacular cliffs, caves and shoreline, but along the mountain ridges on the eastern end stands a wire fence. On one side--the property owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed in cooperation with the park service--the ground is light green, peppered with shrubs and, despite the four-year drought, covered with grass in narrow valleys where rainfall collects.

On the other side, the ground is gray.

What happened here? Civil war, to begin with, and disease, real estate battles, family infighting and a spell of human ecological improvisation that has left the native fowl and island foxes in the company of imported guests ranging from the sheep to a few peacocks and an uncertain number of 150-pound feral pigs.

"They've really hammered the island," says Shaver, thinking of the estimated 600 or more feral sheep that roam the property, left over from a ranching operation suspended a decade ago. "It really looks like Afghanistan in some places."

The pigs are distant descendants of another ranch operation, suspended as long as a century ago. They are joined by a handful of feral horses, whose numbers steadily dwindle as they age and as food and water grow harder to come by. Earlier this month, one equine skeleton lay bleaching in the sun on a high Santa Cruz hilltop. At Scorpion Anchorage, caretaker Duane Owens, a retired Ojai public school principal, maintains a green garden and an immaculately kept pair of buildings for overnight guests. He is the island's only full-time resident these days, but once there were hundreds.

The Chumash Indians, who date back at least 7,200 years on Santa Cruz Island, were evidently the first to fight over the land that is now the Gherini Ranch.

"Their weapons were rocks and clubs," said Chumash descendant Fernando Librado Kitsepawit in an oral history interview published in 1977 by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

The battle broke out, according to Chumash folklore, when a powerful chief's daughter tried to succeed him in power. It ended, Kitsepawit said, when a Chumash priest reminded the combatants that "this island has cost our people a great deal of suffering and trouble."

There was more to come.

By 1881, when a San Francisco bank director named Justinian Caire took over sole ownership of the island, it had already been rejected as a mission site, afflicted with a measles outbreak that decimated the Chumash, claimed by Spain, deeded to Mexico, populated with non-native sheep and pigs and contested in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Caire brought stability. Within a decade he had shipped in merino sheep from Spain to get higher quality wool, opened a functioning vineyard and winery and set up a blacksmith and saddlery on the island.

There was a chapel in the middle of the island, a bunkhouse and a 60-foot schooner, the Santa Cruz, ferrying crews to and from the mainland. Upon landing at Smugglers Cove, the workers stepped under eucalyptus trees, another non-native species.

Today, those trees still stand at Smugglers Cove. A hammock is slung between two of them, near the 100-year-old building where hunting parties spend their nights on the island. Using guns or bow and arrow, hunters pay Island Adventures $500 for the chance to bag a ram or $150 if they happen upon a boar. Like Island Packers, Island Adventures shares its gross revenues with the Gherini family.

All accounts describe Caire's years as the most productive in the island's modern history. But they also further obscured the original island habitat, which had supported no animals larger than a fox. And after Caire's death in 1897, the property slipped into a long spell of family infighting and litigation.

That court struggle persisted through 20 years and eight appeals to the state Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court.

In the end, 90% of the island was shared among several Caire family members, who sold out to Edwin Stanton of Santa Barbara in 1937.

Stanton passed the property to his son Carey, who oversaw it for more than 20 years and passed it to the Nature Conservancy upon his death in 1987. The conservancy, a nonprofit group that works closely with the Park Service, eradicated the feral sheep on its property, though an estimated 2,000 less-destructive feral pigs remain.

The eastern 10% of the island landed in the hands of Justinian Caire's granddaughter Maria, who was represented in the legal fight by her husband. He was a young Santa Barbara attorney, and his name was Ambrose Gherini.

Francis Gherini, son of Ambrose Gherini, sits erect in his Oxnard law office and poses a question.

"Have you ever heard of a kangaroo rat?

"I hadn't either, until a few days ago," he says. "Down there in Riverside County, they're paying $3,000 to $5,000 an acre in order to establish a nature preserve . . . all to protect this kangaroo rat. For $5,000 an acre."

Speaking slowly and still wearing the jacket of his pinstriped suit on a warm morning, he lays out his case against the National Park Service. For details, he refers to a yellow legal pad.

In 1982, he notes, an appraiser estimated the island property's value at $25 million.

Just north of Ventura, Gherini goes on, state officials have set aside up to $7 million to buy 450 acres of the Taylor Ranch as a site for a new California State University campus, more than $15,000 per acre.

Given that and the general state of real estate in Southern California, Gherini says, he is not at all impressed with the National Park Service's offer of about $2,400 per acre for his share of a unique island property. Granted, accessibility is important when you appraise real estate. But so, he argued, is exclusivity.

"Something's wrong," he says. "It doesn't strike me as fair."

Gherini was born in 1914 and has spent a good share of his life thinking about the island. For years, he says, he traveled as often as three days a week to the island. Once, almost 60 years ago, Gherini lived and worked there for eight months.

"It wasn't like we have now, with television and cellular phones," he says. "The boat would come once a week if we were lucky."

When Gherini's parents died, ownership of the Gherini Ranch fell to two sons and two daughters, and for decades Gherini and his brother Pier handled most of the ranch management. In the mid-1960s, they considered development, and even commissioned an architect's master plan for a community of 2,000 or more full-time residents.

State and federal restrictions, particularly the creation of the California Coastal Commission in 1976, blocked those plans. The profitability of the sheep-ranching enterprise dwindled, as well, and in 1980, the same year Congress declared its intention to make the Channel Islands a national park, the Gherini family dropped out of the ranching business.

The sheep and other animals were allowed to remain on the island, largely untended except for the hunt-club excursions that have cut their numbers since 1988. (Jaret Owens, Duane Owens' son, runs the hunt club under a permit from the Gherini family.)

In 1988, a California Court of Appeals affirmed the Coastal Commission's power to restrict development on the property, a decision that put an end to any lingering hopes to develop Santa Cruz Island.

And then, on June 29, 1989, Pier Gherini died, and the selling of the Gherini Ranch became a high priority.

The death left family members with a heavy burden of federal estate taxes and prompted serious talks between his estate and National Park Service officials.

Park Service negotiators made a tentative offer of $4.25 million for each of the Gherini family's four shares, $4.5 million if the deal was delayed until this year. Pier Gherini's estate and the two sisters accepted. Francis Gherini wasn't interested.

The Park Service was behaving, he says, "like a vulture."

Then Congress cut back the Park Service's offer, citing the government-commissioned appraisal value of the property at $14.09 million. Federal officials resolved that they would pay no more than $3.87 million for each share, 10% above the land's appraised value.

The Pier Gherini estate, with estate taxes in mind, took the offer. And last month, on April 25, federal officials let loose a flurry of press releases announcing the agreement and forecasting completion of the park.

The Gherini sisters, both widows in their 80s living in San Francisco, are expected to accept similar terms in the next year.

"They want to get things over with," Francis Gherini says.

But he is willing to wait.

And he has taken inventory of his weapons. Unlike his brother and sisters, he has a living spouse. And if she outlives him, Gherini points out, the family will avoid the federal estate taxes that followed his brother's death. Even with Francis Gherini dead and gone, he says, his wing of the family may be in a good position to hold out.

"He's got more than he'll ever spend in his lifetime. But he's got his thinking," says Owens, who has served as caretaker on the island for six years.

That thinking, John Gherini says, has reduced Christmas card circulation in the Gherini family. And twice this year, that thinking had led Francis Gherini into court against his own family.

On March 22, after opposing the sale of Pier Gherini's island interest to the Park Service, Francis Gherini sued his brother's estate seeking $85,000 in income from the sale, arguing that he was entitled to attorney's fees under a 1984 agreement. The lawsuit is still pending.

And on June 11 in Santa Barbara Superior Court, Francis Gherini is scheduled to respond against other family members in a dispute over income from the hunting operation on Santa Cruz Island, an amount, John Gherini says, that could add up to as little as $2,000.

Facing such a determined litigant, federal officials say they're still hoping for a friendly acquisition but are generally circumspect.

"He simply disagrees with the price," says Ed Haberlin, chief of the division of land resources for the National Park Service's western region. "He doesn't feel the pressure to sell."

Gherini says he would sell for a figure "somewhere in between" $2,400 an acre and five times that much. And if the Park Service won't revise its appraisal upward, he says, he's ready for the agency to go to court and institute condemnation against the property.

"To put it bluntly," Gherini says, "I think I can get a better shake from the Department of Justice."

As long as Gherini lives, condemnation is essentially the only remaining resort for federal officials. But the Park Service's Haberlin says he hopes to avoid public pressure like the controversy that flared earlier this year over Bob Hope and his proposed sale of 5,700 acres to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

"I don't want to put Francis Gherini in that position," Haberlin says.

Francis Gherini, on the other hand, welcomes it.

"The taxpayers have access to it now, the same as they will after the Park Service has it," he says. Gherini noted that Island Packers runs its boats to Santa Cruz just as it does to the other Channel Islands, charging adults $39 for a day trip on most Fridays, Saturday and Sundays. Official on all sides agree that those rates are unlikely to change much when the Park Service takes over.

"They'll have more restrictions on them when the National Park Service takes it over," Gherini says. "And from an environmental standpoint, for about 130 years we've more or less kept the island in trust."

When Santa Cruz Island does finally become public property, the Park Service has its work cut out for it.

"The situation is beyond critical out there," says Bill Halvorson, a Park Service research biologist.

"It's my opinion that the worst of the damage has been done," he says. "But there may be some populations that are extremely low numbers right now and could go extinct in the next couple of years."

The delicate species on the island include Island foxes, spotted skunks, and a variety of deer mouse found only on the Channel Islands. There's also Coreopsis Gigantea , a bush that produces sunflower-like blooms and is particularly vulnerable to grazing.

All of those species, Halvorson says, suffer in the company of the island's many non-native animals. He and other Park Service officials say it's vital to eradicate the feral sheep and pigs from the island, probably by shooting them--an unsavory alternative to many animal lovers, but not as unsavory, park officials say, as the deaths by starvation that some animals are suffering now.

In addition, Park Service officials plan a campground and perhaps a pier at Scorpion Cove--but those are changes that probably have to wait, they say, until the Park Service has complete control of the property.

Across the fence from the Gherini Ranch, representatives of the Nature Conservancy carry their own concerns about the island's plants, animals and future but discuss them even more cautiously than do federal officials.

"I'm on speaking terms with both sides of the Gherini family and I want to keep it that way," warns Harvey Carlson, Southern California field representative for the Nature Conservancy in Santa Barbara.

"Everything that you would protect on the east end is already protected on our preserve, so in that sense it's not a drop-dead crucial issue," he says. "On the other hand, it's obviously been degraded by grazing over the years . . . And it's just going to be a long time until visitors to a Park Service facility on the east end are going to see anything approaching a natural state over there . . . We will be very happy when the day comes that we can dismantle that fence."

But that, like so many things on Santa Cruz Island, hangs on a single question: How long can Francis Gherini fight the Park Service and its plans for Santa Cruz Island?

"You never know," says Park Service negotiator Haberlin.

"Whether Francis writes the last chapter remains to be seen," John Gherini says. "There were a lot of family members who did not want to see condemnation as the last chapter."

Sitting in his office, legal pad in hand, Francis Gherini offers his own appraisal.

"It could be years," he says.

Family Feuding

'There have been intense family disagreements. You can put it that way.'

John Gherini

nephew of Francis Gherini

'Something's wrong. It doesn't strike me as fair. . . . To put it bluntly, I think I can get a better shake from the Department of Justice.'

Francis Gherini

'Isn't it sad? It's real hard to take people out to Santa Cruz. They see what's happening.'

Cheryl Wendel boat cruise operator

'They've really hammered the island. It really looks like Afghanistan in some places.'

Mack Shaver

park superintendent, referring to the feral sheep that roam the property

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