Tourism clashes with research in planning Catalina’s future

The Catalina Island Conservancy plans to raise funds for its stewardship of the island by opening new tourist attractions, raising the ire of biologists who say the nonprofit has all but given up on field research.

Ann Muscat, the conservancy president and chief executive officer, wants the harbor town of Avalon to become the gateway to the island’s 42,000-acre nature preserve, consistent with the vision that chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. had when he bought up much of the island in 1919: a destination for people to enjoy in many ways.

The conservancy announced plans Tuesday to transform the Catherine Hotel, a century-old establishment best known for serving the coldest, cheapest beer in Avalon’s cozy harbor, into a nexus of nature exhibits and accommodations for researchers and eco-tourists.

PHOTOS: Changes for Catalina Island Conservancy

The 14-room hotel, bought with a seven-figure gift from an anonymous donor, faces a popular harbor promenade edged with Victorian homes and docked pleasure craft. Once refurbished, it will feature a restaurant and gift shop where tourists can buy tickets for proposed attractions, including an upgraded Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden and a gondola ride from the garden to a scenic ridgeline overlooking the city.

The conservancy believes the 10- to 15-minute gondola ride would engage visitors who come to Catalina to explore Avalon but go no farther. The ride would also generate revenue to help pay for conservation, educational programs and infrastructure, Muscat said.

The projects, recommended in the conservancy’s new 20-year master plan, align with efforts by the Santa Catalina Island Co. to revive Avalon’s stature as a tourist destination 22 miles off the California coast.

About 88% of the 75-square-mile island is owned by the conservancy, which is a steward for at least 50 plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world.

Muscat acknowledged that some scientists are not fond of the changes. “We are in an emotional time of transition within the conservancy, a time of change as we think about plans for the next 20 years to help us ensure our economic stability,” she said.

Critics include Carlos de la Rosa, who stepped down as the conservancy’s chief conservation and science officer earlier this month.

“In this conservancy, conservation is no longer a passion,” said De la Rosa, who took the job in 2006 and went on to become one of the most popular scientists on the island. “It is more interested in generating tourism dollars with flashy attractions.” De la Rosa, 56, is taking a position as director of the Organization of Tropical Studies’ La Selva biological field station in Costa Rica.

His departure saddened scientists, including Steffani Jijon, 24, a biologist working on a Catalina Island bald eagle restoration project for the Institute of Wildlife Studies. “It’s a huge loss, personally and professionally,” Jijon said. “It shows how the conservancy’s focus is off-target.”

The 40-year-old conservancy has succeeded in returning the island to a more natural state, restoring conditions that had been severely altered by nonnative animals, ranching and farming. In January, the conservancy trumpeted a remarkable recovery for an endangered species: 13 years after a distemper epidemic nearly wiped out all Catalina Island foxes, the population has grown to 1,542.

Still, increasing accommodations for researchers cannot come soon enough for biologists stationed at the conservancy’s inland headquarters, known as Middle Ranch.

Tensions have been mounting for years between biologists and administrators over cost-cutting measures that have curtailed field research. The conservancy has doubled the size of its staff to 80 over the last decade, an increase that raised the number of biologists from six to 10.

Administrative costs now account for 20% of the conservancy’s $12-million budget, which is funded by philanthropy and grants, endowments and earned income from gift store sales and inland tours. About 23% of the budget goes for infrastructure, including maintenance of the airport and 200 miles of roads. About 29% goes to education and conservation programs.

Critics say the proposed gondola is financially risky and will require significant funding upfront, consuming resources that could be used on the conservancy’s core missions: conservation, education and recreation. Some biologists argue that not enough has been done to upgrade Middle Ranch, which remains a hodgepodge of aging structures, providing accommodations for no more than two researchers at a time. Annual surveys of birds and mammals were suspended indefinitely seven years ago to use those funds for other projects, such as bison management.

“Some people are disappointed,” said Julie King, the conservancy’s senior biologist and acting conservation manager. “Middle Ranch should be the most important thing the conservancy focuses on.”