Hundreds of people gathered at Palo Comado Canyon in eastern Ventura County on Saturday to celebrate the dedication of the former cattle ranch--once slated for luxury homes and a PGA golf course--as federal parkland.
Along with dozens of hikers, bikers and equestrians, politicians and environmental activists showed up in force to take credit for the acquisition of the 2,329-acre tract, formerly known as Jordan Ranch.
The dedication began with an ancient ceremony led by Chumash Indian Chief Charlie Cooke, who instructed the more than 400 park visitors gathered under a canopy of oak trees to reach down and touch the earth.
“Now you know what you’re made of,” he said.
Then, taking a clay bowl filled with smoldering white sage, Cooke disbursed streams of smoke in a gesture symbolizing the purification of the land.
The smoke had barely cleared before the jostling began among many of the dignitaries over who could claim the most credit for the acquisition of the tract, now part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The National Park Service bought Palo Comado Canyon from Bob Hope last June for $16.7 million after a drawn-out battle over a 750-home development and world-class golf course planned for the site. Those development plans were shifted to nearby Ahmanson Ranch as part of a complex deal.
The fight to save Palo Comado Canyon involved five years of sparring by local, state and federal officials. The politicking continued Saturday.
Introduced by a federal park official as “the father of the Santa Monica Mountains,” Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) was the first to speak during the ceremony that drew people from both Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
“It is of course for me extremely gratifying for all these many years to have been able to play a role in obtaining the funding to purchase this property,” as well as other mountain land, said Beilenson, who is running for reelection this year.
He went on to thank other officials present for their role in helping to acquire Palo Comado Canyon. They included Ventura County Supervisor Maria VanderKolk, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Director Joseph T. Edmiston and National Recreation Area Superintendent David Gackenbach.
Beilenson also credited Gov. Pete Wilson and his staff for helping to work out a compromise deal between developers and county officials that resulted in the cancellation of development plans for the canyon. Beilenson acknowledged that Richard Sybert, a former Wilson aide now competing for Beilenson’s job, was present at the ceremony, but did not mention him by name.
“He will speak to you shortly, so I won’t introduce him,” said Beilenson, eliciting laughs from the crowd. “But he’ll be around for a while.”
A short time later, Sybert, the governor’s official representative at the ceremony, took the podium and wasted no time in returning the jab.
“As someone who plans to be here for a while, I’d like to give credit where credit is due--to Congressman Beilenson,” Sybert said. “I know as he looks back on a long career he will look upon this as something to be proud of.”
In her speech, VanderKolk, a key player in the deal that resulted in the land purchase, noted that “all of the complicated reasons we are here today are not nearly so important as the fact we are here. I for one am happy that we are here together and celebrating this special moment.”
VanderKolk, who had been criticized by Sybert in the past for not giving Wilson enough credit in the parkland deal, did not mention Wilson or Sybert in her speech. She did, however, give special thanks to Beilenson as “one of our most effective members of the House of Representatives and our white knight in shining armor.”
Mary Wiesbrock, president of Save Open Space, an environmental group credited with leading the charge against development at Palo Comado Canyon, said she was proud of “what the public has accomplished.”
Still, Wiesbrock said the park service never should have paid Hope millions for the land. Because the property was landlocked--with no legal access for a roadway--it would have never been able to be developed, she said.
But Edmiston, of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, said that because the land was privately owned, it still had to be purchased for public use. And he called the value of the land “incalculable.”
Wiesbrock urged the crowd to join her group in fighting development on neighboring Ahmanson Ranch, where a 3,050-dwelling golf course community is planned.
The Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved the giant Ahmanson Ranch project in 1993 on the condition that the development partners deliver to state and federal park agencies 10,000 acres of mountain land--most of it owned by Hope. So far, only about 3,000 acres, including Hope’s Palo Comado Canyon, have been acquired as parkland.
The Ahmanson Land Co., which has agreed to dedicate 2,633 acres of its ranch as open space, must still deliver two other Hope properties to park agencies before it can go forward with its development. These include Hope’s 4,369-acre Runkle Ranch near Chatsworth and his 339-acre Corral Canyon tract in Malibu.
Some of those who attended Saturday’s dedication ceremonies said they were not bothered by all the politicking.
“It’s like a quarterback on a football team,” said Grant Gerson, 73, who rode his horse to the ceremony. “If you win, you’re a hero. If you lose, you’re a bum. I think all of them have to be credited. But it’s the people who won.”
Kitty Dill and her husband Gordon, of Thousand Oaks, agreed.
“If it’s important to them to say their piece, fine,” Dill said. “The reality is that . . . tomorrow and the next day we can come back when there are no more political speeches.”