The famous Matilija Falls is on the brink of closure to the public indefinitely, as private landowner Buzz Bonsall recently announced his decision to close off the natural attraction to all public access.
In response, Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, stated, “For more than a century, the public has used this trail to access Matilija Creek and Matilija Falls, a beautiful waterfall in the heart of the Matilija Wilderness Area of the Los Padres National Forest. These are public lands,” he went on, “and the public should be able to continue to access them for hiking, camping, bicycling, horseback riding, fishing, and enjoying the great outdoors.”
Keeping Access to Matilija Falls Open is a coalition that is working with private land owners near the end of Matilija Canyon Road to negotiate alternative methods for keeping the trail open. The coalition initially formed when Bonsall announced he would be shutting down Matilija Falls to the public, and threatened hikers with trespass citations if they didn’t comply.
The news is devastating for the many who have hiked the trail avidly for decades and have participated in the initiatives to keep it protected. Theresa Hartigan, a local citizen active with the coalition, said, “This trail has been used for many decades to access the national forest for hiking, fishing, and other activities. I have used the trail myself for 20 years and it breaks my heart to be kept out now.”
Visitors traveling through Matilija Falls by stagecoach were documented as early as the early 1900s, and the trail has been one of the most popular wilderness destinations since then. Because the falls have been open to all for more than a century now, it is difficult for the public to come to terms with the fact that a landowner can try and take all that away in just one announcement.
Jeff Kuyper added, “This trail closure follows an increasing trend of landowners denying access to long-standing public routes to the national forest, a resource owned by all Americans. Under California law, longstanding public use can establish a permanent right of public access. We are simply asking the landowner to do what’s right under the law, and to continue to allow forest visitors to use the trail as they’ve done for more than one hundred years.”
The coalition has reportedly worked hard to meet up with all three private land owners near Matilija Falls to discuss the concerns of public trail use (including people illegally camping and littering the trails) and find compromising solutions.
Legal action is expected to take place if negotiations are not successful. Procter, Slaughter & Reagan, LLP, is a law firm that has decided to take this project on pro bono, and represents the coalition in its efforts to protect the historic trail. Bill Slaughter stated, “At the time the property was purchased in the late 1970s, the trail across the property had been used for many years, and the Bonsall family knew that this longstanding use was taking place. The public should not be punished just because a landowner fails to do his due diligence.”
The public is guaranteed access to private land by state law if five or more consecutive years of use can be accounted for prior to 1972. There are many in the community who are expected to testify for the coalition and to supply more than enough accounts of enjoying the Matilija Falls trail well before that date.