Still working through the thick legal sludge of transferring its recently purchased Hot Springs Canyon property to the U.S. Forest Service as part of a long-term preservation plan, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County was forced to issue a statement last week in hopes of clearing up certain controversies associated with the 462-acre historic parcel in the foothills of Montecito.
After reports of roughly 30 federally protected steelhead trout having to be rescued earlier this year from the lower waters of Montecito Creek (a body of water that has its origins, at least in part, up Hot Springs Canyon), the Land Trust found itself under fire in recent weeks for its alleged hand in the stranding, specifically for not uncapping long-sealed hot-water springs that would have potentially helped the downstream fish.
In a statement released last week, Michael Feeney, executive director of the Land Trust, explained the rationale for not triggering a water release. “Releasing mineral spring water could provide environmental benefits to the creek environment,” wrote Feeney. “However, this is not a decision that can be made lightly. It will require a careful assessment of the legal, environmental, and public health and safety implications.” He added that such a decision would be more appropriately made by the Forest Service as they are the intended owners of the property.
The Land Trust bought the land in mid March after a lengthy public fundraising effort, their plan from the outset to buy the land from the McCaslin family and then transfer it to the Forest Service for permanent stewardship. However, due to long-standing and complicated water claims, that transfer has been held up. The Forest Service has no interest in owning something that has outside ownership overlays, and both the Montecito Water District and the little known private Montecito Water Company have such claims.
And while it’s the former situation that is the more stubborn stick-in-the-mud in terms of conveyance, it is the Water Company’s claim to use a portion of the property’s artesian spring water that is at the heart of the steelhead controversy. The Water Company has been collecting most if not all of that water for decades and selling it off at a reduced rate to some 38 neighborhood residences for irrigation purposes, thus erasing the historical hot spring of the canyon. As per the water agreements with the McCaslin family, whoever owns Hot Springs Canyon has the right to at least 50 percent of that piped-away water, but the landowners haven’t exercised that right since at least 1990.
Enter Woody Jackson and his recently formed Friends of the Montecito Hot Springs organization. A lifelong advocate for the healing powers of hot springs everywhere, Jackson has been an outspoken critic of the Land Trust’s plan to give the property to the Forest Service. Though he supports protecting the land from further development, Jackson would prefer the public be given back the opportunity to soak in the mineral springs that were the heart and soul of the old Hot Springs Hotel that burned down during 1964’s Coyote Fire and had been used by the Chumash for some 10,000 years prior. It was Jackson who broke the news this summer that steelhead had to be rescued from Montecito Creek by California Fish and Game officials (such rescues are typically kept hush-hush to prevent poaching) and began a campaign of crying foul about the Land Trust’s failure to release their portion of the spring water.
In the months since, officials from Fish and Game and the federal National Marine Fisheries Service have come out for site visits but, as of press time, no enforcement cases have been opened. Jackson, meanwhile, has backed off his finger pointing and has instead turned to trying to create a community dialogue about what the public would prefer to have happen to the hot springs. “I just want the community to talk,” summed up Jackson this week. “Right now, the plan [for the property] is still so amendable.” To that end, Jackson is helping organize an October 24 event at Mt. Carmel Church designed to highlight the long and complicated history of the land.
Feeney, who declines to publicly speculate on any future use of the hot springs, explained this week that the Land Trust hopes it will finally be able to convey the land to the Forest Service this fall. Detailing a still-forming compromise between his group, the Forest Service, and Montecito Water District that would see the Land Trust keep ownership of the 40-acre chunk of the property that’s home to a Water District well with the remainder going over to federal control, Feeney said, “At this point, it is more important to us that we convey most of the property to the Forest Service than hold out for some other agreement that might not ever happen.”
The topic is on the Water District’s agenda for October 16.