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Living Lightly on the Pass

Holding the Mountains Dear


I came up the San Marcos Pass for the first time in 1962. Our town was small then, 25,000 people. I remember the intersection of State Street and La Cumbre Road having only Kelly’s Corner vegetable stand. The pass was new, and the Santa Ynez Valley was rural.

As Santa Barbara has burgeoned in size and the Santa Ynez Valley has also grown, traffic on the pass has increased, and real estate requests for rural areas have multiplied as more folks are anxious to leave increasingly congested cities. With all this growth and traffic, more animals are struck by vehicles on our roadways, and the removal of the native flora and fauna has increased to the extent that special awareness and protections are needed.

John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the most widely-read economists in the Twentieth Century, spoke about the need for both public and private responsibility. We can practice this ideal locally. The Environmental Defense Center (EDC), among its other aspects, has taken responsibility for trash removal from our local creeks. As an example of private responsibility, I pick up the trash alongside our mountain roadway. (Former Mountain View School principal Dennis Naiman used to let the students see him stooping down to pick up the garbage left on the school grounds. I have just recently read that wherever media mogul Ted Turner has walked in New York City(!), he stoops to pick up garbage.)

Some years ago, in the face of the increasing pressure to subdivide our mountain, I, along with others, felt it necessary to retain the existing five-acre minimum parcel size, as the environment was already so fragile from human intrusion. Our family settled in the West Camino Cielo area in 1970 after residing in the Painted Cave area for quite a few years. We believed our responsibility was to not destroy the mountain values that we had come away from the town to enjoy. We attempted not to disturb the environment, and hopefully succeeded to a great degree. While some disturbance did occur, our family has always had the attitude of leaving no mark other than a quiet footprint in the forest.

There were many more mountain lions, bobcats, deer, foxes, opossums, skunks, squirrels, raccoons, and snakes here on San Marcos Pass, back in the Sixties. I even miss the armies of tarantulas which crossed the lower pass. They aren’t as dangerous as we were led to believe.

Nowadays, it is becoming a rare privilege to see any wildlife. Certainly change happens, but if drivers slowed down and considered the animal life that is forced to share our roads, animals might have a chance. I remember when my children, along with various other neighbor children, were standing at the bus stop looking up the pass at a small herd of deer with babies, when a speeding driver mowed down one baby right in front of the schoolchildren. They were very upset at what they witnessed just before having to attend to their classroom studies.

Another sad but recent memory is of a black bear killed because, after being attracted to a garbage can containing cat food, the bear went to slake its thirst from a nearby water source, a hot tub, which frightened the child sitting in the hot tub. How can we both draw them to our premises and then condemn them to death for our mistake? Black bears, if left to their own devices, prefer to eat berries, choose to avoid human contact, and are almost always harmless.

I have been very fortunate to have two naturalists live on my land during the past 15 years. They have documented a natural biological history of my land. I am one of those rare landowners who have been made aware of the bird migrations and nesting patterns here on my land, with the bird count now standing at 131 species sighted and 161 different plants identified as well. I’m trying to remove non-native and invasive plant species while I try to be a better land owner.

I try to be responsible to my neighbors and those downstream from me. This includes not contaminating or over-using the aquifer beneath us, or the waterway crossing my land, which then flows down to Goleta.

It also means creating as little soil disturbance as possible where native flora exists. I’m learning to wait until the seeds of native plants have dropped before conducting annual fire control.

Other changes affecting our environment are the fencing some folks feel compelled to erect. A recent example is a several-mile long fence, seven to ten feet high. It was erected to protect a few goats from predators but has effectively removed two nearby ponds built in 1947 as a water source for wildlife. (The fence also runs across a vernal stream and is anchored by huge boulders; I speculate as to what will happen when the natural mountain detritus accumulates against this fence during the winter rains.) This large property now excludes all animals larger than a ground squirrel. It makes me wonder: Why do some continue on their own agenda without regard for how special the natural environment really is and how connected each property is to the larger area?

The bulldozing and mastication (shredding) of chaparral is another issue in its own category. Once the fragile mountain vegetation or topsoil is disturbed, most of the beautiful wildflowers nurtured by that soil will never return in our lifetime. I know. I have seen it all happen in the 41 years I have lived here on West Camino Cielo, as a property owner and in-holder in the Los Padres National Forest, and as a very long-time resident of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Experts from UCSB have documented that invasive and highly flammable weeds move into cleared chaparral areas. While well-intentioned, clearing the chaparral can increase fire hazards, cause erosion and downstream flooding, and wipe out wildlife and their habitats.

Through acting with personal and public responsibility, and through more education combined with a willingness to listen and learn, some of the damage could be avoided or reversed. Sometimes neighbors need help in protecting the life and beauty that drew us here. Everyone shares our special living areas, and we each must carefully contribute to them.

Our chaparral and oaks are what support the animals that move through our properties. Stripping the land excessively, fencing off ancient animal passages, obliterating springs and water holes for private purposes, and allowing exotic invasive plants to proliferate takes a bit away from us all.

When excessively selfish—or merely self-absorbed, or distracted—actions cut into the basic services the land provides the entire animal community, we need to remember why we live here, and we might need outside help to learn how to preserve what’s precious. Besides cleaning the creeks, time and again the Environmental Defense Center has stepped up to assist communities in this kind of need. The EDC reminds us of the way ecosystems can work on our behalf. Those hard-working, well-informed folks at the EDC make us think more carefully about what we do to the land, and what’s more, have constantly continually been available as an excellent resource for our community since its inception.

It’s important now during these difficult times to ensure that the Environmental Defense Center’s continuing presence in our community, so they can continue performing the honorable role that many of us take for granted. I personally shall be very pleased and thrilled if each and everyone who loves these Santa Ynez Mountains could contribute a comfortable sum to the Environmental Defense Center @ 906 Garden St. SB 93101, under the heading Protect the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Helen Larsen is a 49-year resident of Santa Barbara and a 41-year resident of West Camino Cielo.



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