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San Miguel Island

Bill Dewey

San Miguel Island


San Miguel Island Closure Irks Officials

Many Questioning Navy’s Sudden Shutdown of Channel Islands National Park Isle


Tuesday, July 15, 2014
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When the Navy closed San Miguel Island in April for the first time in 50 years, officials said it was to look for old, unexploded bombs that were dropped on the wind-whipped crag of rock when it was a military test range. The National Park Service (NPS), longtime steward of the island’s treasure trove of wildlife and archaeology, had recently proposed more public access — beyond the small campground and ranger-guided hikes that have existed for years — and the Navy said it was worried that any leftover weaponry might pose a risk to visitors. The discovery of suspicious but ultimately harmless pieces of metal in January may also have spooked authorities.

But while the military, which owns the island, said it would move “expeditiously” to conduct its “risk assessment,” Captain Lawrence Vasquez and Naval Base Ventura County have yet to take the first step in that process — securing around $250,000 to $500,000 in internal funding to prepare for and conduct their security sweeps. That lack of movement, coupled with relative radio silence from military brass around the open-ended closure timeline, has roused the ire of some and the curiosity of many who’ve asked why, after decades of ranchers, rangers, scientists, and hikers tromping around the 14-square-mile archipelago without incident, the Navy is suddenly so nervous about public safety, and why Vasquez won’t elaborate on the “grave concerns” he obliquely referred to in his April 14 letter announcing the closure.

Captain Lawrence Vasquez
Click to enlarge photo

Courtesy Department of Defense

Captain Lawrence Vasquez

Congressmember Lois Capps sent her own letter to Vasquez this Friday asking him to hurry things up, consider allowing some public visits while the risk assessment takes place, and be more transparent and collaborative with the entire process. It was also signed by Congressmember Julia Brownley of California’s 26th district, which includes most of Ventura County. “The anticipated 1,500 visitors and 500 campers who visit the island each year are losing out on a cherished experience of the natural and cultural beauty unique to our National Park system,” the letter states. “Reduced visitation to [San Miguel Island] is also harming our local economy by taking away business from local touring companies.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office is in contact with the Navy, as well, and it turns out the NPS has been dubious from the start. “In our view, nothing about the characteristics, management, or use of [San Miguel Island] has changed in a manner that necessitates such an immediate or hard closure,” wrote Russell Galipeau, superintendent of the Channel Islands National Park, in an April 18 letter to Vasquez, a highly decorated leader from the Bronx who took over Naval Base Ventura County in 2012. “It is a pleasure to share [the island] and its history with America, and we are very disappointed that a more collaborative approach was not taken with this closure,” Galipeau noted.

Before the shutdown, the majority of people who visited San Miguel arrived by charter boats that anchored at Cuyler Harbor. Travelers were allowed to explore the nearby beach and hike up to the ranger station and campground, but they had to be escorted along the eight-mile trail to Point Bennett on the opposite side of the island. Under the proposal, a spike camp would be created in a dry lake bed near Point Bennett, and visitors would be able to fly onto a small landing strip.

Robert Brooks (1890-1973) leased San Miguel Island from the Navy and ranched it for more than 30 years with help from fellow World War I veteran Herbert Lester
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Santa Cruz Island Foundation

Robert Brooks (1890-1973) leased San Miguel Island from the Navy and ranched it for more than 30 years with help from fellow World War I veteran Herbert Lester

Beating the anti-closure drum the loudest is cultural anthropologist Marla Daily, longtime president of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation and archivist for all eight of the Channel Islands. Accusing Vasquez of abusing his power and telling outright lies about when the island was bombed, Daily was forced to cancel a reunion more than a year in the making of three families whose histories are deeply intertwined with San Miguel. The Brooks, Lester, and Hammond clans were scheduled to meet and stay on the island for three days last weekend to commemorate the 85th anniversary of Hammond Airfield and visit historic ranching sites. A similar get-together took place 20 years ago, but Daily said many of last weekend’s invitees are quite old — Betsy Lester, who grew up on the island, is in her 80s — and may not have another opportunity to travel.

Daily said Vasquez closed San Miguel on “capricious and spurious grounds” and that it’s highly suspect he has declined to say what kind of dangers he thinks lurk in the island’s grass and sand. “Show me proof, and I’ll shut up,” said Daily, who has dogged military leaders for months and filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for more details on the reasons behind the shutdown. (The Independent has also submitted a FOIA request, which is still being processed.) “That island is innocent until proven guilty,” she went on. “If this were Yosemite, there would be an uproar!”

George Hammond (1897-1982), pictured here with his wife and the Lester family, established an airfield on the island and regularly shuttled mail and supplies to and from the mainland
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Santa Cruz Island Foundation

George Hammond (1897-1982), pictured here with his wife and the Lester family, established an airfield on the island and regularly shuttled mail and supplies to and from the mainland

When asked why, then, Vasquez made his contentious order, Daily speculated he may be uneducated about San Miguel history, could be vying for a promotion, or simply suffer from a Napoleon complex and be flexing against the NPS’s proposal. Daily also took issue with Navy statements that the island was used as a bombing range during WWII. “That is absolutely, categorically false,” she said, pointing to hundreds of hours of oral histories she has collected over the last 40 years and claiming the Navy had only established a coastal lookout station at the time. Her records also show that the island was swept in 1965 and 1977 but turned up nothing.

So while other theories of motivation for the shutdown range from slightly plausible to plain crazy — this is the military’s first step toward an eventual and complete takeover of the island; the Navy has created a panga interdiction base on the back of it; the missing Malaysian airliner crashed nearby, etc. — questions continue to fill the void of information. “The reason they gave doesn’t really make much sense,” said Meredith Brooks Abbott, who was supposed to be a part of the reunion, and whose father, Robert, ranched on San Miguel for three decades before the Navy revoked his lease in 1948 and gave him 72-hour notice to collect his sheep and belongings so the land could be used “for military purposes of a confidential nature.” Abbott said the closure feels to her like “an excuse to keep us away,” but she doesn’t know why. “It would be amazing to know the real reason,” she said.

Herbert Lester (1888-1942), who referred to himself as "King of San Miguel Island", lived and worked on the island until his suicide
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Santa Cruz Island Foundation

Herbert Lester (1888-1942), who referred to himself as “King of San Miguel Island”, lived and worked on the island until his suicide

Cherryl Connally, co-owner of Ventura-based Island Packers, which normally ferries adventurers out to San Miguel multiple times a month, is similarly perplexed by the Navy’s decision. “There’s something that someone isn’t telling us,” she said. “There must be something we don’t know that’s top secret.” While the average citizen has been kept away, a skeleton crew of Park Service rangers and field staff, who have been trained in what kinds of worrisome items to look for and how to report them, are allowed back on the island. The Navy issued a public announcement about the closure, but despite Park Service pleas, has not posted any signs at the island about restricted access. For overnight anchorages, private boaters are allowed at Tyler Bight and Cuyler Harbor.

Kimberly Gearhart, spokesperson for Naval Base Ventura County, said the funding search is underway and is slow going because budgets are set years in advance and the risk assessment is an unforeseen expense. “If you haven’t set money aside for your roof to fall in, and it falls in,” she explained with an analogy, “it takes time to get the money together.” Gearhart said she’s aware of a cleanup that took place in the 1960s, but it was quick and cursory. The Navy, which keeps San Clemente Island closed to the public (it was used during WWII as a training ground for amphibious landing craft) as well as San Nicolas Island (it was the site of rocket tests), has also stated that bombing took place at San Miguel as recently as the 1970s.

San Miguel Island
Click to enlarge photo

Bill Dewey

San Miguel Island

Records are spotty and incomplete, Gearhart went on, and it’s not yet known what kinds of bombs were dropped when and where and what it will take to render the entire island safe. She also said officials don’t know if any bombs, live or dummy, have been uncovered over the years. (Daily said four dummies were unearthed, and Galipeau said the Park Service is aware of two discoveries. The details around all the incidents are murky.) Though Daily’s oral histories and research are helpful, the Navy must rely on official reports and photographs, Gearhart said. Talks with the corps of engineers are also taking place. “For us, it’s not about proving there is ordnance,” she said. “We want to prove there isn’t.” She sympathized with Daily and the loss of access, but said ensuring no one is hurt by an errant bomb trumps those concerns for now.

In an interview on Monday, Galipeau said he’s having a hard time understanding the Navy’s sudden anxiety over liability and public safety and that he just doesn’t get why the iron gate was shut so quickly and completely. From a Park Service mission and management standpoint, it’s a real problem that people now can’t experience the island’s rare caliche forest, roosting pinnipeds, and sweeping vistas of the sea, he went on, noting that rangers have always monitored the area with especially strict rules because of the sensitivity of the rare and prized environment. “Who’s responsibility is it to maintain the island if it doesn’t have public use?” he asked.

In his last correspondence with Vasquez, Galipeau said he included a map that showed where his staff had been on the island over the last 10 years. It covered much of the terrain. The site of the proposed public spike camp has been used for years by NOAA researchers, he went on, and all the other areas that would be opened up to day visitors or campers have already been walked over time after time by rangers and other scientists, he said. Looking ahead, Galipeau is working for a re-open sometime in the coming year, but in the meantime, he’s unclear how many resources the Park Service is expected to cough up to enforce the Navy’s order. “You can’t just close an island and expect no one to show up,” he said. “It’s their closure, not ours.”

Comments

Independent Discussion Guidelines

Something about this doesn't pass the smell test. What is the Navy hiding?

blackpoodles (anonymous profile)
July 15, 2014 at 11:02 p.m. (Suggest removal)

An island.

SB_Guy (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 8:42 a.m. (Suggest removal)

When I worked for the Santa Cruz Island Foundation in 1994, I took members of the the Brooks, Lester, and Hammond clans to San Miguel island to commemorate the anniversary of the Hammond Airfield and visit the historic ranching sites. Betsy Lester lived on San Miguel Island as a little girl with her family and their mail was delivered by plane by the Hammonds. The history is rich and wonderful on each of our Eight California Islands and should be openly shared with with the public. There is nothing unsafe on San Miguel. So many families have been hurt who have had histories on the islands. Let's not punish the public too. When will this stop? Lauretta Lowell

laurettacreations (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 8:45 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I used to live in Santa Barbara and now live on Whidbey Island where there is a naval air station. On the central part of the island, there is an outlying field where the pilots train to do landings on a small strip the size of an aircraft carrier. The practice landings were over twice the number that the environmental impact statement included in its very old EIR. A citizens group had to sue the Navy to get them to update the EIR.
I hope the Navy is more forthcoming with folks about what is happening on the islands but letting Rep. Capps and your senators know how you feel may be the only way to get more information.

LHThom (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 8:50 a.m. (Suggest removal)

They're doing something classified out there. A local contractor I know was working out there a couple of years ago and needed a top secret clearance for the work. I don't know if it's still in progress, or if its completion is the basis for this closure, but an electrician with a TS clearance isn't compatible with the Navy's explanation, and a TS is a lot higher than the secret clearance that is the highest required for most of Raytheon's contracts in Goleta.

14noscams (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 9:30 a.m. (Suggest removal)

the stink of collusion was creeping in from the first day it was announced as being shut down. ....suddenly a groundless concern by the military.

Glad the politicians are at least exercising their voices. Seem so obvious that something much bigger is going on that we the people aren't being told about.... and the biggest joke / tragedy is we aren't getting any information about the real story. It's probably supposed that it's for our own good.... bs.

The military forces will not respect low level government officials, particularly if they're affiliated with the democratic party.

jazzifier (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 9:50 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Gojiri

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 10:12 a.m. (Suggest removal)

This sounds to me like an internecine spat between the Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Park Service (NPS). There are probably folks in DoD who feel like they lost something when the San Miguel was turned over to NPS and the DoD is now asserting whatever power it has to show NPS who the toughest kid on the block really is. Of course there could more complex, conspiracy-theory type explanations. However, my Occam's Razor simplicity filter tells me that this a macho inflated-ego jock vs. smug tree hugging nature geek kind of conflict. DoD should not waste a single penny of taxpayer treasure on San Miguel Island, turn the whole thing over to NPS, wash their hands, and just walk away.

Eckermann (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 10:17 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Talk to the Commander-In-Chief. He is the military supreme commander and has a pen and phone to get things done on his own any time he wants.

JarvisJarvis (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 10:21 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Lame... kind of like Goleta Pier that has been closed for MONTHS! I bet it is a money thing.

bimboteskie (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 11:24 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Haven't you people ever heard of "Kong"?

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 11:43 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I think 14 has the right of it.
Probably doing something classified and they don't want us common proles poking about in it.

Ekermann seems to be reading way to much into it. The simple explaination is as stated above.

sslocal (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 12:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Probably an underground defense center like in a James Bond movie. Secret NSA defense weaponry ballistic strategic center. Ya that's it.

Or,

the DoD needs something to do. They got more money than they know what to do with.

Georgy (anonymous profile)
July 16, 2014 at 1:30 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The article doesn't say if they've closed the airspace over the island. Would be tough to be doing top secret work there if they haven't.

Den (anonymous profile)
July 17, 2014 at 9:54 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I checked for NOTAMS and didn't find one for San Miguel. Disneyland is restricted airspace today or tomorrow?, forgot to check the date. This is a very recent, unexpected closure, not a long-term ongoing issue, so it makes sense that it's unrelated to what the person I know was doing. Who knows?

14noscams (anonymous profile)
July 17, 2014 at 9:26 p.m. (Suggest removal)

As someone with several family members who served in the US Navy,
Captain Lawrence Vasquez and the US Navy are behaving irrationally and completely lack common sense. The US Navy is asking us to believe that nearly 70 years after the end of WW2, with decades of campers, NPS employees fisherman, campers and surfers walking around the island, now Vasquez says the island is unsafe? I am calling BS on that.
If that's true, then Vasquez or someone in the Navy should be court martialed and denied a pension for allowing an unsafe situation for 70 years. Of course what is more likely is that what is happening is more of the Federal Government's usual M.O., which is to gain control of land by lying, then horribly mis-manage it. Reminds me of another recent misguided San Diego politician Duncan Hunter who wanted to preserve the island for handicap vets to hunt on a few years ago. Then they actually went there and realized that wheelchairs can't roll on the rocky uneven terrain. The channel Islands are beautiful and unspoiled, they should be left alone and remain as one of the very few unspoiled places in CA.

Rinconer (anonymous profile)
July 18, 2014 at 5:11 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Outstanding article, thanks Tyler Hayden.

skcyclist (anonymous profile)
July 19, 2014 at 7:11 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Islands have historically been used for quarantines. Maybe the Federal government plans to use the island in the event of an Ebola virus outbreak.

pointfinder (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2014 at 11:27 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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