As the second largest chunk of Channel Islands National Park, and yet with a fraction of the visitors to Santa Cruz or Anacapa islands, Santa Rosa Island is a wonderland for lovers of nature and solitude. But visitors tend to be of the hardier sort, forced to endure a multi-hour ferry ride across often rough waters, trudge a couple of miles to the existing campground, survive in mostly backcountry conditions during their stay, and then hike for many more miles to see the island’s primary sights.
The National Park Service would like to make that experience easier for a wider portion of the population while also preserving the island’s historic ranch complex in Becher’s Bay, once home to the legendary Vail & Vickers cattle operation. Based on the directives approved in a 2015 management plan, they are now seeking suggestions from the private sector for a financially feasible plan to develop lodging, food and beverage, trailhead transportation, and camper support services, such as a small store. Hoping to launch these updated options in 2024, the park is soliciting such ideas until February 2021.
“The island is a difficult place to get to, and it’s a difficult place to explore,” said Ethan McKinley, who was named the park’s superintendent in January 2019. “You really need to be an experienced camper at this point to gain access. We still want that to be part of the experience. But we would like to open it up so that we have more access for folks who might not have the mobility or the physical fitness, or be the right age or have the right level of experience to sleep on the ground or to camp.”
In doing so, the park will better showcase the island’s past. “The benefit to the park is finding a really purposeful and beneficial use for that historic ranch,” said McKinley. “In my experience, buildings that go unoccupied begin to deteriorate and lose their value. We want to see these buildings be well used. We want to see the ranch thriving.”
But don’t expect Disneyland to descend on Becher’s Bay. “Nothing that we are proposing would increase the level of capacity,” said McKinley. “It would be a different type of visitation option, but it’s always going to be hyper-exclusive on that island.”
Partnering with the private sector is commonplace at almost every national park, and there are a massive range of styles, services, and prices. McKinley envisions Santa Rosa Island hosting something like Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon, or perhaps the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite. “It’s limited, it’s low impact, and it’s discreet,” he said. “That’s the category of service we are looking for out there. It’s maybe one step above camping. We want it to be basic accommodations. We want it to be affordable.”
Being so remote, with dips in visitation during the colder months and inclement weather, Santa Rosa Island may prove challenging for profit-minded concessionaires. There are only four existing rooms in the ranch house and, even with the nearby bunkhouse involved, overnight capacity is just 40 people. (California State University-Channel Islands, which currently uses the bunkhouse as a research station, will be building a new facility for students and scientists.) Those limitations are why the park is reaching out to potential business interests now, to better determine what might be a profitable operation.
“This is an unusual thing for the Park Service to do at this stage,” said McKinley, noting that his agency usually determines the development plan first and then opens it to bids. “This is one step before that. We can take a guess at how attractive a business opportunity would be for the private sector, but we’d rather have them tell us.”
In addition to the lodging, a commercial kitchen could sell food, perhaps as meal plans for campers, particularly those staying at a to-be-built, 75-person campground near the ranch at Becher’s Bay. (The existing campground two miles away in Water Canyon will be reduced from 75 campers to 50.) There could be a small store, selling sunscreen and other necessities, and truck rides to remote trailheads, perhaps with supply drops of water and food for backpackers as well. (A park-wide wilderness plan is also in the works to assess new and existing trails.)
“If that started to come together, it could be a real unique business opportunity,” explained McKinley. By law, the resulting lease could be up to 60 years long, though such an extended timeline would have to be justified. “There would have to be a major capital investment into the historic structures,” said McKinley.
With the Conception boat disaster, a wildfire on Santa Cruz Island, and the pandemic impacts, it’s been a rough go for McKinley’s first 18 months in charge. The park has remained open throughout most of the pandemic, with camping available on all of the islands except Santa Cruz, where the pier is still being repaired. (That may change by the end of November.) Visitation rates remain limited due to public health concerns as are the ferries run by Island Packers, which are only allowed to carry 40 percent of their usual loads. “It’s been challenging for the team,” admitted McKinley of these tougher times. “But the park has made it through very well.”
To learn more about the plans for Santa Rosa Island and suggest ideas by February 2021, see all of the details here.
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