Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tar Creek: Closing Soon

"None shall pass."

On December 6th I received this email from a representative of the US Forest Service Los Padres:

The Ojai Ranger District proposes to install two steel signs, closed parking area signs, and a wooden informational kiosk above Fillmore, CA.  The signs inform the public of the closed parking areas and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary (Tar Creek Falls area) is closed to public entry.  The wooden information kiosk provides current public information and flyers.  The signs will be located beyond Goodenough Road on Dough Flat Road (FS Road 6N16) at milepost 0.25 and at milepost 4.8 (the unauthorized trailhead parking).  Boundary signs will be posted along the road for enforcement. (See attachment and http://goo.gl/maps/ZrXmV)
The Sespe Condor Sanctuary (Sanctuary) within the Sespe Wilderness has been closed to public entry since November 1947 (1952 USDA, Management Plan for Sespe Wildlife Area).  Since its establishment, the Sanctuary is known to most people as a protected area for the propagation and growth of the California condor.  Listed on official agency websites as ‘closed to public access’, most other websites promote unauthorized access to the Sanctuary, specifically the Tar Creek Falls area.  The illegal access has escalated since 2008 and continues.  There is a high incidence of unauthorized access into the Sespe Condor Sanctuary via the Tar Creek Falls access trail.  Since November 2012, the Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers have documented over 100 people a day entering this location on weekends.  Weekly, people are leaving 100-150 lbs. of trash along the trail and Tar Creek Falls area.  Microtrash is scattered in the parking areas.  Bonfires and nighttime illegal activities conflict with Forest regulations.  The human presence and the unauthorized recreation activities create stressors and impacts to the California condor and its habitat, listed as a federally endangered species in 1967.  Condors are known to roost and utilize the Tar Creek Falls area, which is protected critical habitat.  Active nest sites exist in the vicinity of the falls.  Under the 2005 Los Padres NF Land Management Plan (Forest Plan) to avoid disturbance to breeding and roosting California condors, no activities or human uses are authorized within 1.5 miles of nesting sites and 0.5 miles of active roosts (Forest Plan, Part 3, p. 8, Standard 28).
Forest Service staff, cooperators, and volunteers will educate the public about the history and closure of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary.  Public outreach and education includes a press release, handing out flyers, making public contacts before enforcement fines are initiated.  Communicating detailed Sanctuary closure and information through social media and websites is necessary.

If you have any comments, please email, call, or stop by before Dec. 31st.  After reviewing and incorporating public input, we will begin the New Year with a project to protect California condor habitat.  Many residents and volunteers have spent countless hours picking up trash at the Tar Creek Falls area after busy public weekends.  Those efforts are greatly appreciated and recognized.  The Forest Service endeavors to harness that stewardship to keep the area clean.  If you are interested in assisting with public outreach for the project, please let me know.

Irvin Fox-Fernandez
Resource Officer
Ojai Ranger District, Los Padres National Forest
1190 E. Ojai Avenue
Ojai, CA 93023
Office: (805) 646-4348, ext. 312
Fax: (805) 646-0484

I have warned for quite a while of impending access restrictions at Tar Creek. I first visited the canyon in 1994 and have been down there well over 100 times. Over the years I have bemoaned the persistent and accelerating destruction of the habitat in the canyon. In recent years the pace of visitation and the resultant impact (trash, graffiti, etc...) has gotten completely out of control. I have hauled out a tremendous amount of trash over the years, collected at least 1,000 brash shell casings, and yes, it's been me who has repeatedly chopped the climbing bolts in the canyon and hauled out rope, hardware and webbing. One summer I observed two guys repeatedly riding down to the canyon on highly maneuverable 125cc motorcycles, and the third time I encountered their bikes at the bottom of the trail I had come armed with a crescent wrench. I took their front wheel lugs and left those lugs on a rock at the parking area above. I have not seen the motorcycles since.

After the advent of YouTube I noticed an uptick in visitation and determined that keywords such as "waterfall jumping" had contributed to the increasing traffic (I have never used that keyword in relation to Tar). And then Tar Creek was included in a second or third edition of "Day Hikes of Ventura County", and since that time the place has become like a Disneyland for disrespectful tourists. I do take a degree of responsibility for the increased exposure to the place but have always strived to represent in photos and in words a feeling of respect and awe for Tar Creek and the habitat contained therein.

I have replied to the USFS with my own opinion on this matter which is that I am 100% on board with denying access to Tar Creek. I have taken the view that this a place far better left to the birds. I have been invited to participate in the process of public outreach regarding the impending closure and look forward to being involved.

To end this post I'd like to share some photos never seen before on this blog. These shots were taken by me and David Rivas Jr on 02/24/2008 when Tar Creek was in flood. It was a dangerous and exhilarating day. Enjoy. Also, just to relive what we'll all be missing you may want to visit a video tribute I did: Tar Creek Vimeo


  1. Shame... Some people's ***holes. Thanks for the pictures.

    1. Unfortunate indeed, that Tar Creek must come to an end, but agreed it's what's needed. Honestly? 150lbs. of trash a weekend!! Yet another example of the "lowest common denominator" ruining it for everybody.
      BTW- Nice Flood Pics Intense!

  2. Obviously no one wants to see Tar Creek look like what has happened to the Santa Paula Creek area or the Santa Ynez Recreation Area on a Sunday afternoon. But is it any wonder why forest users are becoming irate with closure after closure?

    The USFS is out of line, they have been issuing tickets in the parking lot there for what? People they think are in the Condor sanctuary. If you look at the maps the Condor sanctuary boundary is not on the road to Dough flat or in the parking lot but down in Tar Creek. Tar Creek road proper is not a USFS trail but a private easement held by the oil companies. So the USFS waits in the parking area and then they ticket people for accessing a private easement and assume they were all the way down in tar creek. Since when does the USFS have the authority to ticket anyone on a privately held easement outside of the Condor sanctuary? Someone could walk down Tar Creek road a short distance road to see the view or take a photo of bear heaven and walk back to be ticketed by a ranger!!! This is fundamentally wrong and an abuse of power, guilt by proximity or association, what happened to due process?

    In the last few years we have lost some major access points to our forest, like Perkins road to the Lion Canyon trail-gone as the USFS did not fight for a prescriptive rights easement. Huasna road has been closed removing the vehicle access to the Garcia Potrero and Wilderness due to another easement issue. Colson canyon road is closed, removing vehicle access to the La Brea Canyon area and the campgrounds there and will not reopen because the USFS will never have the budget to repair the road. Access to the upper Matilija has been challenged too.
    When will it end?

    Should we close the Grand Canyon for the Condor, why not close the Sierra Madre ridge too? Last summer the California condors descended on Bear Valley Springs and created havoc for the powerless residents. There’s nowhere left for a bird that needs a range of a hundred of miles and is curious about humans to the extent where they will pick your lunch off the picnic table when you are using the bathroom at Montgomery Potrero.

    Obviously this is a done deal, another example of enforcement by exclusion, everyone should write the USFS and tell them how you really feel.

    Chuck Ahiga

  3. A disappointing but not surprising response from USFS to the ongoing problems with public visitation to Tar Creek. From all I've seen, TC is well on its way to being another ruined destination just like SP Creek.

    I think the FS is correct in so far as there being a need to do something to protect critical habitat for the Condors, in light of the fact that much of what's taking place in Tar Creek is directly at odds with Condor recovery efforts. But I also think Chuck Ahiga (above) also raises some important points about continuing loss of access throughout the forest (w/ Tar Creek being just the latest in an ongoing saga), not to mention the FS's legal standing to enforce access restrictions to areas not entirely within the sanctuary boundaries.

    Ultimately, I'm not sure yet where I stand on all of this, but I appreciate you bringing it to our attention DS.

  4. It seems like this used to be more of a hidden gem than now. I have been hiking there for 30 years and have never seen it so bad. Hordes of partiers swarm it and dont seem to care at all about the natural beauty of the falls and surrounding terrain.

    I wonder if this means they will start clamping down on hiking to other great spots in the Sespe like Whiteacre, Sulfur and Topa Topa peaks?


  5. I feel that it is my time to chime in, given that the inevitable question of access to public lands, private easement, and the US Forest Service's closure of such places seemingly without consultation or appeal has been raised.

    I have a somewhat unique perspective on the issue of backcountry access and such closures. During my time as a semi-professional rock climber I encountered such issues routinely. Whether it was closures in Yosemite or Cochise Stronghold AZ for the protection of nesting perigrin falcons, the closure and/or severe access restrictions enacted in Hueco Tanks TX to protect rock art, or the complete closure of Williamson Rock in the Angeles NF for the protection of an endangered toad, or even closer to home in Blue Point Piru for a similar reason, I have found that the sins of the few are paid for by the many. Objecting to such closures is always an option and frequently these concerns are valid. It is very easy to succumb to the libertarian mentality and say, "I pay for access to these public lands with my taxes, so what's next? Where does it end?" My answer is simply to be vigilant and vocal while keeping an open mind to all aspects of a given situation.

    The case of Tar Creek may seem at first glance as a unilateral act of tyranny without representation, and that is a valid point. On the other hand, something must be done to curtail the degree of habitat destruction occurring at such an alarming rate in such a small area, basically just 1.25 miles of creek bed. The only legal representative with the authority and a mandate to act in this matter is unfortunately the USFS, an agency with a history of and propensity for overreacting. The USFS Los Padres is in a tough spot because their area is vast and difficult to regulate, and it contains habitat for an endangered species. It is easy to surmise that if it weren't for the condor, Tar Creek would continue to progress into a state similar to that of Santa Paula Canyon. In truth, given that the condors do nest there, the FS was supposed to be protecting this habitat all along given the specific requirements of the Endangered Species Act as it applies to these birds.

    Am I happy with this state of affairs? Absolutely not, however I am even more displeased with the status quo, unregulated access and abuse by hordes of people who lack a fundamental respect for the outdoors in general, and Tar Creek in particular. As to the the idea that the USFS will continue to encroach on our access to other portions of the forest, I would advise a "wait and see" approach, though I think that threat is, for the most part, unlikely. Remember, the hordes of people traveling to Tar Creek are not generally the type to encroach on other parts of our forest. They are there to party, shoot a bunch of video of themselves jumping the pools, defile the place, and leave. In the end, it's the birds that need a break, and I can't see much of an alternative.

  6. To clarify Chuck's statement regarding the public lands and private easement on the path down to Tar Creek, I have been advised by a man who would know, that "he is correct that the Sanctuary is @1.5 mi. down the trail and that 1.5 miles is open public lands (but it is not private easement held by an oil company)". -DS

  7. That’s interesting, after the USFS graded those berms at the parking area I called the Ojai FS office and asked about the public access down tar creek road. I was specifically told by the woman on the phone that I would be trespassing because the road was an oil company easement and that no public entry was allowed on it or in the lower tar creek. Apparently someone is not being honest or someone else is mis-informed, people who want to park there for other legitimate and legal activities such as bird watching or hunting quail such not be ticketed or denied the use and enjoyment of our public lands. Without question, the ticketing of anyone at the parking area without witnessing their presence in the condor sanctuary is an abuse of their police power. This is exactly what the USFS has been doing.

    I don’t believe this issue has anything to do with condors, its’ an excuse to keep those nefarious Fillmore locals out of Tar Creek. Trash, illegal activities, fires and micro trash in the parking area are what they want to stop and the FS is using the condor sanctuary as the means to accomplish their goal. Condors nesting high in sheer cliffs of Tar Creek and the Sespe aren’t to terribly disturbed by people far below. The Condor recovery team in Hopper Canyon can repeal down a cliff, enter a nest site, gently move a condor aside and inspect her egg while she sites calmly and watches.

    Chuck Ahiga

  8. I see no reason to believe the USFS will achieve much success in protecting this condor habitat when they apparently couldn't even manage to keep road access to the Dough Flat Trailhead open.

  9. Chuck, I agree that ticketing at the parking area would be wrong, and the longer I ponder the issue of enforcing the matter, the more I come to the conclusion that it will be impossible without changing the actual borders of the boundary. First, it would be a Federal citation. I have received a number of those for not displaying the Adventure Pass, and ignored them all without consequence. The fine for trespassing on a closed Forest Service road is $75.00, one I've paid twice for my sins. I agree that this does have the scent of denying access for reasons less related to the health of condors and more toward restricting the influx of disrespectful touristas. I am certain there won't be a USFS law enforcement officer camped at the bottom of the trail waiting for people willfully ignoring the signs. They closed Blue Point for the same reason, though the excuse at that time was the arroyo toad. It is a shame that things have come to this. I choose to blame the party crowd more than the Forest Service in this particular matter. One other thing to consider is the number of Sheriff's Department helicopter rescues that occur each spring and summer. Perhaps there has also been pressure from that agency to curtail access. It would be interesting to learn if that's the case. -DS

    1. In regards to closing the Tar Creek access, good. In regards to enforcing such a closure, good luck.

  10. It makes me sad that access to wilderness is being reduced so regularly. Every time they close off a trail or a campground or an access road they just make it more difficult for ordinary people to enjoy. I've always used that trail to access the Sespe River corridor. Now it will involve a long and difficult multi-day backpack to get to the same place. I'm getting too old for that.

    There is a kind of snobbish elitism that says if you aren't fit enough to hike the extra miles and rich enough to afford the days off they've just added to your trip - stay out. I'm not the only one who feels this way. While the wilderness lobby is busy cutting back on easy access, the greying of America will dramatically reduce the number of folks physically capable of reaching the wild.

    Eventually it may simply be illegal for anyone to go anywhere genuinely wild since the presence of people (and certainly hunters) inherently makes it less wild. I'm sure the idiot purists will be happy in the short run but over the long haul, a people who don't experience the wilderness will eventually stop valuing it. Once that happens the Sespe and other like places will become just more raw land to be exploited. - FWH

  11. To FWH, I agree with your sentiments. It's not just the National Parks that should be enjoyed and experienced. Though we all at times enjoy the feeling of being alone in the wilderness, it is important to recognize that fewer people are seeking that feeling out nowadays, and that means that fewer people will appreciate the wild places for what they are and accord such places the cultural value they deserve. Unfortunately, Tar Creek is a blatant example of misuse and abuse of habitat. I sympathize with the USFS on this one. And the lefty tree-huggers can make a valid argument that the crowds in Tar Creek are not trashing the place but also leaving behind refuse that endangers the birds. On an individual level I do decry the tightening of access to such places, but I am not in charge of the world. I can only do what I can to set an example. -DS

  12. I grew up going to tar creek and it really has been trashed these last few years.

    To say the internet or some books telling people how to get there was the reason for the large numbers of people going there is not the real cause.

    So many areas campgrounds, trails and parking areas, have been closed there really is too few places left to go.

    Blue Point campground closed , and now you can't park at the trailheads for AquaBlanca trail, Pothole trail, turtle canyon, and Piru canyon.

    Hard Luck campground closed

    Buck Creek campground closed

    Lions campground closed (but not upper or middle Lions campground )

    Beaver campground closed

    Matilija falls trail closed

    road to Dough flat closed

    Canyon off ventu park Rd in T.O. where people did cliff diving closed

    Gold Hill campground closed

    Hopper canyon and the water slide and pools closed (also in the condor area)

    Bluff camp closed

    That is just some of the places in ventura county that have been closed.

    This left Tar creek as one of the few places left.

    With all these places closing it should not be a surprise the few places left open would be overrun with people. It is a death spiral, each place that closes makes it worse for the ones still open.

    The only way for this to get better is for the closed places to open so people have an alternative in where to go.

  13. I live in Wisconsin now and haven't been to Tar Creek since 1999, but it still holds a special place in my heart. Sorry to hear it's been getting abused and sorrier still that others aren't going to get to enjoy it. I would have much rather seen an approach that embraced the increased usage and worked to educate the users and minimize the impact. Places like this are how a love for the outdoors is cultivated and the accompanying will to protect it. What a great place to take a city kid to. They start out loving the slides, jumps, and challenge; pretty soon you've tricked them into embracing the whole experience. They want to understand why it's there, how it formed, the flora, the fauna, how it changes over the seasons, etc.
    I was looking forward to taking my daughter here someday, but I guess not now.
    On the other hand, I'm glad to hear Condors are doing well here. I never saw one in the 90s and the rumor was that the introduction had been unsuccessful in this area - too many power lines or something - and the project was moved further north in Padres I thought...
    Anyway, thanks for the information!

  14. An interesting quote, in the context of the issue raised in this blog post above, from the latest issue of "Zoo News," the quarterly print magazine published by the Santa Barbara Zoo:

    "The success of condors nesting in the wild at the Sespe California Condor Sanctuary has increased markedly - from as low as 6.5% to over 61% - since 2007, when the Zoo and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formalized the California Condor Nest Guarding Program. This is well above the species' historic and remnant population baselines."

  15. Was there this weekend for the trash cleanup, where were you?

  16. Was not notified/invited. Was on an archaeology tour so couldn't have made it anyway. -DS

  17. is it bad to say that i would like to go and have a couple beers with friends and my have my kids go swimming. i LOVE the wilderness and it's a shame to see that people can't even clean up after themselves. how hard is it to take your trash with you when you leave?? i like to be at one with the beautiful Mother Nature and feel the tranquility of it all but i would also like to experience that with family and friends. it doesn't mean that i'm going to trash the place.

  18. Its rather convenient that your for closing as you've been there over 100 times.. not everyone would trash it. I get most are but thats also people who are there not saying anything to those that are. If I saw stuff like that going on believe me idc if they are 10x bigger than me I will tell them to respect whete they are at or it wont be for their kids. Ive lived in minnesota but most of my life here and have searched far for spots I finally think I found a place wirth going and its the same.. its just this statr in general has less respect. Ive never heard of things like this happening back in MN. I know its messed n shouldnt be this way but maybe rangers should have a minimum of trash to be returned till the parks cleaned and you will quickly weed out the ones who are there to party and ruin it. If they respect it and want it presereved they wouldnt have a problem. They use to do something similar for people floating and drinking down rivers (its not how it sounds, people leaving trash n such altho it happens) but we would have our cans (no glass permitted) counted and just a rough list of things if we didnt return with the exact # of cans you pay a penalty maybe time not allowed to return for certain time. It actually encourages many to pick up whatever they see. Theres such few swimming holes and lakes that you can swim in out here (im sure due many to careless people). Its sad and the time you fi d one you have to hike forever which is fine if it was beautifully kept and worth it. Not anymore soon all swimming holes and get away beauties will be destroyed just like the hot springs.. fuck

  19. I strongly agree with the argument that as each locale closes, other spots become target for further over visitation. I also believe that if our country valued resource sustainment and alternative education more than foreign country's oil rights, we might have the finances and volunteer manpower to actually MANAGE our wilderness and the enjoyment of it. Let's not forget that collectively we have the power, in our minds and in our hands. The Law is a process and therefore can be bound by its own process. We are responsible to create the world we crave. And never lose your sense of humor people. In conclusion, all feelings and facets of this whole entire situation can be summed up by Jacqueline's last word...(see above). lol.

  20. I have backpacked and camped in the Sespe and Piru drainage since the begining of the 1980's. I am apposed to all the closures. I do agree there is a problem with the trashing and grafidi in these beautiful places. I have also witnessed areas of ancient cultural significense destroyed in a short amount of time. All of this sickens me. I have abandoned areas because of the miss use. It is sad, very sad.

  21. Tar Creek has always been a favorite of mine. I understand the reasons behind the closure. I wish for a better option. I would love to volunteer to do a cleanup and I know many who would love to join in.

  22. Litterbugs, pyros and idiots jumping off rocks and potentially injuring themselves make this too much of a hassle for the community. Condors are more important than a bunch of irresponsible jerks who ruined this for everyone.

  23. I agree. You lose the right to enjoy nature and special places like this if you cannot respect them. The ignorance of so many folks about human impact on the natural world startling at best.

  24. the closings have to stop. I am barely 17 and just want to get out of the concrete jungle i see every day. Everytime the usfs shuts down a trail they shut down another experience. they shut down another dream. tar creek has now been on my bucket list for 3 years now and its just sad that it is just so out of reach