Ojai’s Matilija Canyon, with its dramatic waterfalls and serene swimming holes, is widely known, widely loved, and, in the eyes of an adjacent private landowner, strictly forbidden to the public. A group of conservationists and hikers called Keep Access to Matilija Falls Open (KAMFO) filed suit against the landowners Monday in Ventura County Superior Court in an attempt to restore public access to the hotly contested trail, which crosses through private property en route to the famous falls.
The lawsuit is the latest step in a prolonged ownership battle over the trail, which also partly runs through Los Padres National Forest. Though old photos and trail manuals demonstrate nearly a century of public usage, a land acquisition by the Bonsall family in 1979 intersected the trail and complicated access. In 2009, landowner Buz Bonsall began to turn away hikers as potential trespassers, and subsequent negotiation attempts between KAMFO, Los Padres National Forest, and Bonsall failed to yield a public easement.
The plaintiffs are now seeking a permanent public easement through the property. “Matilija Canyon has a rich history of public access dating back nearly one hundred years,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, one of the members of KAMFO, in a statement. “National forests are a public resource that should be accessible to all of us. We want to make sure that families and outdoor enthusiasts can once again enjoy the natural beauty and tranquility of Matilija Falls.”
The plaintiffs argue that California law grants the public the right of way to access the land in its prescriptive use right to any property that has had five or more years of sustained public use prior to 1972. The plaintiffs cite decades of public trail usage, with official U.S. Forest Service trails on record since the 1930s and postcards of the falls dating back to 1905. Bill Slaughter, whose firm Slaughter & Reagan LLP represents KAMFO, says the Bonsall family ought to have been aware of the prior usage when they purchased the property.
“At the time the property was purchased in the late 1970s, the trail across the property had been used for many years and the Bonsall family knew or should have known that this longstanding use was taking place,” he said in a statement. “The public should not be punished just because a landowner fails to do his due diligence.”
Bonsall has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit. He could not be reached for comment.