Coastal prairies. Redwood forests. Riparian canyons.
All of it has been protected for the future, and the future is well on its way. A new plan is out for the North Coast’s Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument, a green space that could open to the public as early as the fall of 2021, says Ben Blom, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Central Coast Field Office.
The local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office just released its much-anticipated, if hotly contested, plan for how to open up Cotoni-Coast Dairies—some of which just burned in the CZU Lightning Complex fire, a blaze that BLM officials helped fight. These new changes are not happening without some frustrated pushback locally.
For more than five years, nearby neighbors from areas like Davenport have expressed concerns that the opening will accelerate changes in the region, reshaping it from a quiet beach town into a bustling tourist destination.
“There is an enormous amount of beach traffic already, and we don’t have the infrastructure,” says Noel Bock, a leader of the Davenport/North Coast Association.
A 30-day protest period on the report opened Friday.
COAST TO THE FINISH
One of the proposed new uses at the national monument may come as a surprise to some county residents.
In addition to mountain biking, horseback riding and Native American cultural ceremonies, there will probably be some hunting. That would make Coast Dairies the only hunting grounds in the county. Although the hunting would come with a long list of regulations, Blom expects that particular aspect to be one of the project’s more controversial.
The Cotoni-Coast Dairies Resource Management Plan lays out three possible scenarios for public access, and three of them, including BLM’s preferred option, involve hunting. Under these scenarios, the agency would only allow bow-hunting in a remote area of the national monument, and Blom says the office would likely restrict them to five small youth hunts per year. He imagines at least four of the hunts would focus on non-native animals, like wild pigs and turkeys. It’s possible the fifth could allow for deer hunting, he says. That’s the model, he notes, that Santa Clara County’s Cañada de los Osos Ecological Reserve currently follows for its junior hunting program.
Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke repeatedly pushed to expand hunting on some federal lands in 2018.
The preferred option also prohibits camping and lays out more than 20 miles of day-use trails for various activities.
BLM recommends splitting the park opening into two phases. The first phase would include 17 miles of trails, and BLM would evaluate the impacts before beginning the park’s second phase.
BLM has an agreement with the local Amah Mutsun, a Native American tribe, which is partnering in decisions about local ecology preservation and aspects of property management. The tribe will continue holding ceremonies and cultural practices in its traditional territory.
The new plan brings together input from a wide swath of stakeholders, some of whom are feeling pretty good.
In an email to members, the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz announced news of the access plan, which the organization is “very excited about,” according to the dispatch.
“Thank you to everyone who spoke up in support of trails—whether you attended one of our many letter-writing events, voiced your opinion at a public meeting or sent an email from the comfort of your home, you made a major difference in opening up this land for responsible recreation,” the message reads.
Although it had been protected many years earlier with state money, the Coast Dairies property officially got its national monument designation in January of 2017 from then-President Barack Obama in the days before he left office.
BLM originally planned to release its new access plan in late August, but after then the CZU fire broke out, Blom’s team decided to revisit the portions of the report about vegetation management and mitigating wildfire risk. The plan states a fully operational National Monument would allow crews to beef up fire prevention and make the area safer.
In compiling the plan, BLM went through 862 comments.
Some comments—like requests to minimize public access—did not align with the scope of the federally funded document, the plan stated. Others focused on the impacts associated with increased people passing through.
“BLM received several comments concerned with the amenities and services to fully cover what were often referred to as the ‘4T’s’—traffic, trauma (police, fire, and rescue response), toilets and trash. Occasionally, ‘transients’ were also identified as a concern,” the report says.
In response, BLM promises to conduct regular maintenance, patrols, and monitoring to help keep visitors and surrounding communities safe. Actual law enforcement, however, would still fall under the jurisdiction of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. The plan states that officials would coordinate with deputies to address issues.
Retired environmental lawyer Jonathan Wittwer, who lives in Bonny Doon, says many rural residents are just trying to grapple with recovery from the fire that destroyed more than 900 homes and may not have the bandwidth to fully engage. Especially in the aftermath of a once-in-a-generation disaster, the whole process feels rushed, he says.
Wittwer and Bock, the Davenport North Coast Association leader, says she and other neighbors would have preferred a lengthier, more in-depth environmental process. Among her concerns, she worries that a parking area at the top of Warnella Road would interfere with Molino Creek farming vehicles, logging trucks, and mountain lion habitat, while also creating neighborhood impacts.
Bock is nonetheless grateful for BLM’s work during the recent fire—crediting officials with saving Davenport from the encroaching CZU Lightning Complex fire when it started breathing down on the neck of the small coastal town last month.
With an unprecedented list of fires burning throughout the state at once, Blom says Cal Fire had to pull resources away from the Davenport area. That’s when BLM stepped up.
“We did what we could on our property, and let Cal Fire do what they needed to, whether it was in the San Lorenzo Valley or elsewhere,” Blom says. “Our relationship with Cal Fire is strong, and this was our first major wildfire since acquiring the property.”