The motto “To Protect and Serve” belongs to the Los Angeles Police Department, but it has been adopted in spirit by Tim Setnicka, superintendent of Channel Islands National Park.
Since being appointed top administrator in February 1997, Setnicka has taken an assertive approach to overseeing the five-island park, earning a reputation as a tough cop and a compassionate ranger.
His controversial reputation was shaped shortly before becoming permanent supervisor when he ordered a commando-style raid on Santa Cruz Island hunting camps to wrap up a grave-robbing investigation--a decision that prompted questions by congressmen about whether such force was necessary.
Setnicka has tackled other controversies as well in his quest to restore the Channel Islands to their native condition while making them a more attractive destination for visitors, particularly families.
In 1997, more than 147,000 people visited the islands and about 250,000 passed through the visitors’ center in Ventura, where a Pygmy Mammoth exhibit is expected to open this summer.
“There’s lots of work to be done,” said Setnicka, an Ojai resident. “We’re still under fire. We’re still dealing with issues out there. We’re continuing to manage these resources for the greater public good.”
One of the thorniest issues confronting the park service concerns the removal of wild horses from Santa Cruz Island. The park service and some of the island’s former owners are seeking to remove the small herd, but an animal-rights group has held up matters in the courts by filing an appeal, which is scheduled to be heard July 6 in Pasadena.
Setnicka recently talked with The Times about the wild horses and other issues related to Santa Cruz Island.
Why is it important to remove the wild horses from Santa Cruz Island?
When the sheep-ranching operation shut down in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, the horses were left to fend for themselves. . . . Our goal is to remove all the alien species, plant or animal, on these islands to help restoration of a functioning, natural ecosystem.
How has the continued presence of the horses, because of court appeals, affected the park service’s ability to restore the island’s ecosystem?
We’re still in the embryonic stage. Clearly, 14 horses out there have a very minimal impact on native and restoration efforts. However, the goal [of the Santa Barbara-based Foundation for Horses and Other Animals] to establish a horse herd out there, and I’ve heard it’s as many as 500 horses, would have a devastating impact. So, that’s why we’re very concerned that the horses get removed and adopted. . . . The bigger problem is safety. A lot of people, especially in the summertime, are fearful of the horses. One individual was kicked and had his leg broken.
How successful has the effort been to rid the east end of the island of ferel sheep and pigs, which damage the island’s native plants?
To date, we’ve moved over 2,000 sheep. El Nino stopped us in our tracks. We’re gearing up and will be actively starting to move animals again.
What is the condition of Scorpion Ranch, once envisioned as the centerpiece for tourism on the island, since it was badly damaged by an El Nino-driven storm in December?
That’s still the plan. The flooding that occurred destroyed a number of small, historical ranch-related structures and severely damaged others. We plan to continue to restore and protect the historical structures.
What is your definition of an authentic island environment?
A fully functioning native ecosystem. One that is comprised largely, if not entirely, of native plants and animals, with enclaves of development centered around historical or modern development. . . . What has occurred is that the island is almost a vast grassland of non-native annual grasses as a result of being grazed so heavily. We expect those grasslands to shrink considerably.
What about animals?
The pigs would be gone. The sheep would be gone. The largest native animal is the island fox, of which there are a few on Santa Cruz. They’re about the size of a cat. There’s also a [native] skunk, which is rarely seen. . . . I would really like to see, and I think it’s time to restore, the bald eagle to the islands.
How do you increase the popularity of the island and preserve its natural resources?
That’s always a subject of huge debate. . . . I think the key is to continue to have public involvement, because you’re going to get detractors at every step of the way. . . . You really have to listen to what the public has to say, and then you have to have the courage and conviction that what you’re trying to do meets the goals of that particular park service area. . . . The thing that has saved this park is that channel. You have to work to get to the Channel Islands. We get a very dedicated, interested visitor.
How have services to the public changed since the park service seized control of the eastern end of the island?
There has been a very positive difference. When [the island] was privately owned, it cost $15 per person to come ashore. It cost $25 per person per night to sleep in a very primitive campground. When the national park service obtained ownership, those fees went away. . . . Along with having [Ventura-based] Island Packers as a longtime boat transportation service, we now have out of Santa Barbara, Truth Aquatics, a longtime dive-boat operation. . . . If you don’t have a boat, these services will haul your kayak. We have other contracts with outfitters that are authorized to take people out and guide people around.
What preexisting businesses were impacted by the takeover of the east part of the island by the park service?
Prior to full acquisition, there was a sheep-hunting operation. Now hunting is not authorized. There was a helicopter tour operation. They would fly out and land on or around different beaches and have tours of the island, which, of course, can have a devastating effect on wild sea birds and cause disturbance. That operation was also terminated.
A hunting guide was convicted last year of desecrating a Chumash grave. What has the park service done to prevent similar acts?
A big difference on Santa Cruz is we have an increased staff now of law enforcement rangers.
You were criticized by some for ordering the aggressive raid on the sheep-hunting camps during your investigation of the grave desecration. Any regrets?
A couple of important points: There were real threats against the rangers out there. . . . We knew we were going into an armed hunting camp. We knew there was a real potential for violence. As the situation wound up, the three people who were arrested were found or [pleaded] guilty. No one was hurt, killed or injured. It was not even a close call.
What has surprised you the most since taking this job?
I think how much silent support there is for the park and what we’re trying to accomplish. . . . People generally feel good about the park because it’s OK to have a little piece of Southern California preserved in its natural state for all time, and that’s what this park represents. So we have to look where it will be in five years or 10 years. That’s pretty exciting.
Do you envision yourself being in your position five, 10 years from now?
No. There are other parks and other issues to be either resolved or questioned, so it’s an ongoing process.
When will you feel your job is completed here?
Building a park and managing a park is never completed. There’s always something new. The latest thing that has jumped up is this zonal fishing. We’re proposing to the state that they review it. We’re concerned that the waters around the park, which is a marine ecosystem, are being depleted. What we’re suggesting through our science staff is that 20%, about 25,000 acres of the 125,000 acres of waters surrounding each island, be established as zones where there is no removal of the species--fish, abalone, lobster, garibaldi, kelp. . . . You have to preserve a little to save a lot. [But] the organized fishermen are skeptical.