Navy Closes San Miguel Island to Look for Old Bombs

Public Safety Concerns at Former Test Range Prompt Long-Term Operation

San Miguel Island
Matt Kettmann

Before hikers and campers can explore more of San Miguel Island — a windswept and craggy but picturesque strip of land off Santa Barbara’s coastline that was used as a bombing test range as recently as the 1970s — the U.S. Navy has closed it for the next year or so as it scours the terrain for any leftover weaponry.

The closure was prompted by a recent National Park Service proposal that the public be granted greater access to the 14-square-mile archipelago, the westernmost of California’s Channel Islands celebrated for its roosting seabirds, gathering pinnipeds, and alien landscape of caliche forest. Approximately 1,000 people visit San Miguel every year, with around 200 of them camping overnight, typically during the summer months.

The announcement was made last week and over the coming months, the Navy — which owns the island but leaves its management to the Park Service — will perform “risk assessment” to determine what areas pose a potential risk to wandering visitors. No unexploded bombs have been found on San Miguel since the 1980s, but suspicious pieces of metal have turned up, like when a Park Service employee spotted some this January and reported it to the military. The discovery turned out to be a false alarm.

As part of the assessment — it will require new funding and the hiring of an outside contractor, said Kimberly Gearhart out of Naval Base Ventura County — historic photographs and records will be examined to pinpoint where the bombing was concentrated, what kind of ordnance was used, and which type of clean-up strategies may work best. National Park service employees are being trained this week on what to look for as they walk existing trails, Gearhart explained, but an overall closure timeline hasn’t been determined.

Gearhart said San Miguel was peppered with ballistic bombs and missiles during and after WWII — no nuclear tests were conducted, she noted — and that while the Navy organized a cursory sweep in 1965 for any potentially dangerous debris, the site continued to be used and a comprehensive clean-up hasn’t taken place. San Miguel is part of the Ventura Navy Base’s 36,000-square-mile, offshore test range, which also includes San Nicholas Island and its operational “impact site” for non-explosive tests.

Explaining that the Navy is completely on board with the Park Service’s plan for expanded public access on San Miguel, Gearhart said the only way to make sure the moves happen safely and responsibly is to “go out there and see what’s going on. … This is the right thing to do.” Depending on what they find, Gearhart went on, the clean-ups may occur in phases or in specific areas, or both. Terrain will play a large factor in how things proceed, so crews will survey the scene by foot and from the air.

Right now, the majority of people visit San Miguel Island via approved charter boats that anchor at Cuylers Harbor. (Private boaters have to register with the Park Service.) Visitors are allowed to freely explore the mile-long beach at Cuylers and to hike up to the nearby ranger station and campground, but they must be escorted for the eight-mile trek to Point Bennet on the opposite side of the island. Under the Park Service’s proposal — introduced late last year as part of a larger plan to encourage public use of the Channel Islands, one of the country’s least-visited national parks — a spike camp would be established in a dry lake bed near Point Bennet, and visitors would be able to fly onto San Miguel’s small landing strip.

Admitting the Navy’s decision to close the island has been met with some serious grumblings, Gearhart assured that the move will prove worthwhile in the years to come. “There are some unhappy campers out there, but the key reason we did this is to keep people safe.” Yvonne Menard, spokesperson for the Channel Islands National Park, agreed with the call. “At the National Park Service we support the Navy in its quest to ensure public safety.”


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