After more than a year without access to Point Sal State Park due to military security concerns, the 140-acre plot of prime ocean views once again opened to the public, as of Tuesday, April 8. The previous Friday, Vandenberg Air Force Base 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. Joni Gray, Santa Barbara County’s 4th District supervisor, vowed that the county would sign off on the plan “the minute we get it.” That promise has come through. “As of today, people can use the trail and go to Point Sal,” she said. “This should have happened a year ago.”
Her frustration with the closure was shared by many nature lovers in Santa Barbara. 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 a 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 long walk visited Point Sal without problems until January 2007, when Vandenberg officials closed the road to all traffic, citing concerns over national security and, because the washed-out road is reportedly treacherous in parts, hikers’ safety as well.
“Even walking this trail, it’s a little extreme,” said Vandenberg’s Major Tina Barber-Matthews of the state of the road. “It is not something that your 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 Los Angeles 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 citations had already been issued. That same month, the base’s Colonel Steven Tanous agreed to stop issuing citations and instead to 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 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 Gray, a former attorney, said her research had yielded a different answer. “We never abandoned the right of way,” Gray explained.
The renewed access includes sunrise-to-sunset rights strictly for pedestrians-no cars or bicycles will be allowed. It also allows Vandenberg officials to close access and clear the area for missile launches and during times of increased security. Though the county will work with Vandenberg on the cost of any fencing along the road leading to Point Sal, the county will solely be responsible for any improvements to the road as well as any emergency evacuation that might occur.
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. That, Gray believes, 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.”