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Pact to Boost Access to Santa Rosa Island

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An agreement reached Friday will put an end to almost a century of cattle grazing on the rolling hills of Santa Rosa Island and increase public access to the second-largest holding of Channel Islands National Park.

The agreement resolves two lawsuits against the National Park Service.

The first, filed by an environmental watchdog organization, cited mismanagement of island resources. The second, a countersuit, was filed a year later by the former owners of the 54,000-acre island, who have continued to operate a cattle ranch and a wild-game hunting business there since they sold it in 1986.

Under the agreement, filed with District Court in Los Angeles, all cattle must be removed from the island by the end of this year, and deer and elk hunting on the island will be phased out by 2011.

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“This is dramatic,” said Brian Huse of the National Parks and Conservation Assn., which filed suit against the National Park Service over its management of the island. “And I expect no less dramatic a recovery for the resources of Santa Rosa Island. This is the first time in a century that native habitat will have a chance to exist in its own right.”

The agreement will protect endangered species on the island, which is owned by the National Park Service, and drastically increase public access to the lush island--the second-largest of five islands in the Channel Islands National Park.

In addition to the removal of all cattle by year’s end, the agreement provides for major changes in the management of island resources.

Some of these include reducing livestock not native to the island by 85% by 2000 and 100% by 2011; monitoring Santa Rosa’s endangered plants, streams and riparian habitat for the next 13 years; and allowing the island to return to its natural state, aside from historic buildings, which will be preserved.

Nonnative livestock includes the deer and elk that are hunted for sport.

Located 45 miles off the coast of Ventura, Santa Rosa Island is home to the western snowy plover and eight threatened or endangered plant species, as well as more than 2,000 archeological sites left by Chumash and Chinese abalone fishermen. Three of those plant species--including the munchkin dudleya, a delicate plant with yellow blossoms--are grown nowhere else in the world.

The National Park Service bought Santa Rosa Island from the Vail family in 1986 for $30 million.

The park service then signed a 25-year lease with Vail & Vickers, the company owned by the Vail family, allowing it to continue ranching herds of cattle as well as elk and deer for hunting with a special use permit. That permit had to be renewed every five years.

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But the first suit, filed by the National Parks and Conservation Assn. in 1996, accused the park service of breaching numerous environmental laws by continuing to allow the 6,500-head steer ranch and wild-game hunting company to operate on Santa Rosa Island.

That suit asked the federal court in Los Angeles to shut down the ranching operation until the ranchers complied with federal laws.

Specifically, Huse accused the park service of failing to keep the grazing in check or to adhere to its own mission of preserving the island for public use.

Instead, most of the island had remained off-limits to unescorted park visitors, Huse said, and grazing cattle have munched the island’s vegetation down to stubble and fouled its creeks with cattle waste.

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The second suit was filed in 1997 by Vail & Vickers, which said the families had a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the U.S. government at the time of the sale that permitted them to continue their ranching and hunting businesses for 25 years, provided they continued to manage the island in the same way.

Vail & Vickers sought a restraining order against the park service last year, arguing that a stringent resource-management plan would violate the terms of its agreement with the government and put it out of business.

Russ Vail refused to comment Friday, saying simply: “We will be out of the cattle business as is stated.”

Huse was jubilant.

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“We hope this is the beginning of a new trend in park service management,” he said. “What was allowed to happen at Santa Rosa Island should never have happened at a national park, where the natural resources are supposed to be protected for future generations.”


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