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Island in a Sea of Politics : Santa Rosa Rangers Cater to Visitors in an Effort to See That Their Park Prospers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Faulkner squints into the morning sun as the small, twin-engine plane approaches Santa Rosa Island, its coastline ringed with long stretches of white sand beach.

The plane skirts along the island’s coast at about 1,000 feet, high enough above the brown, rolling hills for Faulkner, a National Park Service ranger, to scan much of the 54,000-acre island.

The aircraft is cruising low enough for the 10 tourists with Faulkner to get a bird’s-eye view of the cattle that seem to graze everywhere on the diverse landscape.

“You’re really looking at something unique here,” Faulkner tells the group, explaining that the island ranch operates today almost exactly as it did when it was founded in the mid-19th Century.

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While visitors to national parks rarely receive this kind of personalized attention, it is becoming almost an everyday occurrence at Channel Islands National Park--the least visited national park in the contiguous United States.

“We’ll give a guided tour of the island to anyone who would like it,” said Corky Farley, the only National Park Service ranger who lives on Santa Rosa year-round.

Farley greets most of the charter planes that land on Santa Rosa’s bumpy dirt airstrip, he said, and often participates in Faulkner’s tours as well.

“If there’s a ranger available, and not busy doing something else, the visitors come first.”

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The group that visited Santa Rosa on a late November weekend included a pair of retired Ventura residents and their daughter from Maryland, a family of four from Agoura and a French retiree who lives in San Luis Obispo. All arrived on a $75 charter flight offered by Channel Islands Aviation, a private concessionaire operating from the Camarillo Airport.

The all-day outing provides greater access to the island than ever before. Sites now open to tourists during the guided tours include Chumash Indian archeological sites, the island’s eastern coast and several pristine beaches. Previous tours only stopped at Santa Rosa for an hour at most, Faulkner said.

The guided tours are part of a strategy to draw more tourists to the remote island, a critical goal if the park is to prosper in the political world of the national park system.

“We can’t deny that national parks are political entities,” park spokeswoman Carol Spears said from the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center in Ventura Harbor.

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The park service’s dual mission--to protect the natural environment while providing for human enjoyment of the park--is difficult to meet at a park such as Channel Islands, which can only be reached by boat or plane, Spears said. Although more than 229,000 people have visited the park this year, only 48,000 have actually ventured to the islands.

Most island-bound visitors make it to Anacapa Island, the smallest link in the five-island chain but also the closest to shore at only 11 miles, Spears said.

Only about 1,350 tourists have gone ashore at Santa Rosa this year, leading park officials to help initiate the guided tours through Channel Islands Aviation.

Rangers have accompanied visitors on hikes only since the park service bought Santa Rosa Island in 1987, because of a joint-use agreement that allows the Vail & Vickers Co. to continue using the island as a ranch until 2012, Faulkner said.

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Since the chartered air tours began, rangers have been driving guests around Santa Rosa in all-terrain vans. The first stop on the tour is a grove of 200 Torrey pines, a tree species from the last Ice Age found only on Santa Rosa and in La Jolla.

After Faulkner’s group of tourists walked around the trees and tasted the pine nuts the trees produce, they headed into the island’s interior. While the vans traveled the two-tracked dirt road, which winds around patches of coyote brush and over chaparral-covered hills and dips into gorges and ravines, Faulkner and Farley provided a running narration.

Marcelle Martin, a retired foreign language teacher from San Luis Obispo, said she visited Ventura last week to attend a senior citizens program on the Channel Islands. She said the Santa Rosa trip was a far better outing than the boat tour she had taken around Anacapa the day before.

“The islands are not next door, but for the people who want to take the trouble to get out here, it is well worth it,” Martin said, rolling up her gray sweat pants as she waded into the waves at a beach near the eastern tip of the island.

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Lois Sowell, an accountant from Maryland, said the guided tours are an ideal way to see the islands.

“It really gives people who would probably never get out here the chance to see the park,” she said. “I don’t think we have anything like this on the East Coast.”

Sowell’s parents, Louis and Irene Grimm, have toured most of the parks in the nation, but both said the experience on Santa Rosa was incomparable.

“This is just so different than a drive-in type park. It’s more romantic,” Irene Grimm, 77, said.

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“Flying out here really makes a difference, and so does the fact that it’s an island,” Louis Grimm, 88, said.

Grimm said he appreciated the interpretive information given by the rangers.

“I just hope that as more people start coming out here that people don’t start leaving the beaten tracks and ruin the place,” he added.


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