Earlier this month, Steve Reed could feel nerves start to set in among his staff and volunteer team for the Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument campaign, while they wondered whether two years of work had gone to waste.
Time, after all, was beginning to expire on the presidency of Barack Obama, the man with the power to single-handedly recognize the site as a national monument.
Reed, the campaign manager, led the local effort to secure Obama’s dedication of the 5,800-acre parcel perched among the rolling hills above Davenport—an announcement that finally came from Obama on Thursday, Jan. 12.
“We got it with a whole week to spare,” Reed says, insisting he had remained confident of the outcome.
The White House’s announcement of the California Coastal National Monument expansion includes six different sites; in addition to Coast Dairies, there are three in Humboldt County, a small parcel outside San Luis Obispo and a stretch of small rocky islands just off the Orange County coastline.
Sara Barth, executive director of the Sempervirens Fund, says she’s “ecstatic” about the local national monument. The fund, which was involved in the campaign, is dedicated to preserving as much of the coastal redwood forest between Silicon Valley and the coast as possible.
But many North County residents neighboring the property worry that the national monument will draw traffic jams’ worth of tourists, without allocating enough Bureau of Land Management (BLM) resources to cope with the influx.
“It’s a beautiful piece of property, and it should be accessed,” says Noel Bock of the Davenport North Coast Association. “But there are no parking lots, no trails, no restrooms, no parking. So it’s not quite ready for primetime.”
With some of those concerns in mind, County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, who represents Davenport and Bonny Doon, successfully advocated for the feds to stipulate that the Bureau of Land Management won’t fully open the property to the public until a management system is in place.
However, Coonerty suggests the designation could be a boon for local residents because they can use federal, state and local money to address not only future issues, but also problems that already persist in Davenport and Bonny Doon—improving trash collection and emergency responses, for instance. “You have a better chance of getting federal resources with a high-profile property,” he says.
Ted Benhari of the Rural Bonny Doon Association appreciates that sentiment, although he still worries that the national monument’s profile will create parking problems and vehicles whizzing by pedestrians on formerly quiet and somewhat rural streets.
“I have heard the assurances of more local resources, but we are the ones who are going to bear the expenses of increased visitation,” said Benhari. “We are strongly behind a management plan—an environmental impact study.”
Now that the national monument is official, North County residents have turned their attention to the public processes that will shape its future.
Reed and Barth also support the drafting of a comprehensive management plan, which they hope will balance needs for ecological preservation of the extremely biodiverse property with the recreational opportunities, like hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Reed additionally wants to make sure the site honors the significant Native American history, as California’s coastal tribes once used the scenic coastal beaches in ceremonial practices.
David Ledig, BLM’s manager of the California Coastal National Monument, says he understands the competing interests at the heart of property, as the agency prepares an environmental review.
It’s a process that will be slowed a bit by the departure earlier this month of Rick Cooper, the BLM regional manager charged with overseeing the Cotoni-Coast Dairies property, who just retired. But Ledig says that a new field manager, who arrives in March, should help get things moving.
The planning will nail down details, like where to put access points to the monument.
Bock and Benhari, for their part, worry that established access points off of San Vicente Street or Warnell Trail or Laguna Road would either provide insufficient parking or create other impacts on locals.
All sides hope that the nearby Cemex plant, which has been permanently shuttered, could present a solution. The county’s economic development department is studying the reuse of the plant, still owned by Cemex, a cement company headquartered in Mexico. “There are a lot of steps in between changing a cement plant to a nature center, but there is reason to be optimistic,” Barth says.
Although the national monument has an allure of federal resources, the years ahead may not actually be paved with big bucks, especially since the Department of Interior (DOI), which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, has been operating in the red.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM have approximately $6.8 billion in deferred maintenance on their various properties as of 2015. Also, the National Park Service, which is housed under the United States Department of Agriculture, has about $11.8 billion in deferred maintenance.
While the two agencies are in different departments, they still compete for a slice of the federal budget.
The specter of a cash-strapped BLM taking over management of a local park has Benhari and others fretting that maybe the national monument will not provide the solutions its proponents extol.
Congressmember Anna Eshoo, one of the foremost political supporters of the national monument designation, sent a statement to GT reiterating her support of the project and acknowledging the concerns of local residents, which she says can be addressed in the planning process.
She also forwarded a 2015 letter she wrote to Ken Calvert, chair of the Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, requesting an $11 million increase to the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System.
This, however, was before Donald Trump ascended to the White House; Trump, along with a legislature fully controlled by Republicans, can instill an agenda that reverses course on federal lands.
Republicans—pushing back against Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act and national monument sprees—have included a massive transfer of public lands back to states in their party platform.
Although Reed says it would be “really hard” and “dumb” for Republicans to undo the popular Coast Dairies designation, he does worry that the Trump administration will cut the funding for the BLM and the DOI.
That’s why Bock says a wait-and-see approach might have been smarter.
“I think we should have waited until the next Democratic president,” she says, “when we would have had a management plan in place.”
Edit 01/30/17 12:10 p.m.: The name of the Rural Bonny Doon Association was corrected.
Thanks for the story, Matthew. Couple of small corrections: 1. The National Park Service is part of the Dept. of the Interior, just like BLM. 2. The small parcel you refer to as “outside San Luis Obispo” is actually the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery on the coast near Hearst Castle, in San Luis Obispo County but not near the city of San Luis Obispo. 3. The name of the organization that has fought to protect Bonny Doon and the north coast of Santa Cruz County from development over the last 60 years is the Rural Bonny Doon Association, not the Bonny Doon Rural Association.