After more than a year of access being denied by the military due to safety and security concerns, Point Sal State Park may soon be open to the public once again. That was the word coming from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Friday, April 4, as officials announced they had presented the County of Santa Barbara with a plan to re-open the park’s access road, which cuts through the northern corner of the base and was closed to all traffic in January 2007.
It’s now up to the county to sign off on the plan and make access a reality. If the plan is what was unofficially agreed upon earlier with base management, that would happen “the minute we get it,” promised 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray. Gray, who’s worked overtime to get this access issue resolved, was clearly pleased by the news when she said, “I hope to heck this happens. I am so frustrated. This should have happened a year ago.”
Gray’s frustration is shared by many nature lovers in Santa Barbara, as will be her happiness if the state park is opened again. One of the coastal jewels of Santa Barbara County’s crown, Point Sal has been off most hikers’ maps since 1998, when El Ni±o storms wiped out the nine-mile-long access road, known by hikers as Brown Road and by the base officials as Point Sal Beach Road. Those who didn’t mind the extra long walk or preferred biking the paved part kept heading to Point Sal without problems until January 2007. That’s when Vandenberg officials closed the road to all traffic, citing concerns over national security as well as the safety of hikers, because the washed out road is reportedly treacherous in parts.
So just how precarious is the road? “Even walking this trail, it’s a little extreme,” said VAFB’s Major Tina Barber-Matthews on Friday. “It is not something that you’re 80-year-old grandfather is going to easily take, nor is it something that your six-and-under child is going to take on. But avid hikers? Probably so.”
The off-access situation reached a crescendo in December 2007, when the L.A. Times reported on the more than 15 hikers who’d been ticketed since the closure began. The article also reported that while the base closed the road in January, it wasn’t publicized until April 2007, after a number of citation had already been issued. That same month, the base’s Colonel Steven Tanous agreed to not issue any more citations and instead escort trespassers off the base. In the meantime, the county agreed to try and find other access routes onto the base that wouldn’t disrupt Air Force business.
The dispute between the military and the county government is rooted in ownership of the access road. “There is still some confusion over the rights to that road,” said Major Barber-Matthews. “It’s one of the issues we’re still researching.” The military believes it owns the road because the county gave it up when the base was created. But the county says it never gave up ownership, and Supervisor Gray, a former attorney, said her research confirms the county’s position. “We never abandoned the right of way,” Gray explained.
As such, this current plan is an interim solution. The access offer includes sunrise-to-sunset access strictly for pedestrians – no cars or bicycles will be allowed. It also allows Vandenberg officials to shut access and clear the area for missile launches and during times of increased security. “We have gone to great lengths to draw up a proposal that meets both the local community’s desire for beach access and the Air Force’s need for safety and security,” explained Colonel Tanous in Friday’s press release. “We explored several options and have an interim agreement that is a reasonable compromise:.I look forward to continuing our work with county officials as we implement this interim agreement and develop a long-term solution.”
But finding a true long-term solution may be less of an issue in the future, explained Gray. She said that 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone had recently taken some county employees out to Point Sal and discovered a possible access route through county property. He then brought up a Hot Shots firefighting team and had them weed-whack a potential trail that would skirt the base property. And that, believes Gray, will probably offer a more stable access portal for hikers.
“My family, prior to World War II [when Vandenberg was established], enjoyed that beach so much,” remembered Gray. “I just want my friends and family and grandkids to be able to enjoy it again.”