Sunday, January 18, 2015

Access Lawsuit: Matilija Canyon

The access problem at Matilija will finally be going to court, or at least to negotiated settlement. The first I heard of this happy development was a 15 second blurb on KCLU and then in an article in the VC Reporter. The issue of private property rights versus access to Matilija which the public has enjoyed since the early 1900's will finally be decided. Back in 2009 the land owner, Mr Buz Bonsall, decided to deny access through his property. This created enough of an uproar in the community that the Forest Service and access advocacy groups got involved and things settled down for a while. But the issue has continued to simmer without any clear resolution.

During the 2009 crisis I used this blog to pen a rant about public access to the Forest in general and against Mr Bonsall in particular. The writing was juvenile and provocative but with a title like "The Matilija Nazi Drops The Hammer" the post continued to generate a huge number of hits and responses for the next few years until I took it down. Some time after that writing he started pestering Craig Carey for my phone number which Craig, to his credit, wouldn't have handed it over even if it had been in his possession to give. But Buz wanted to talk to me. Eventually I called just to see what he had to say. I remember the conversation clearly because a.) he sounded drunk, and b.) he just rambled on and on and I couldn't get any sense of what the hell he wanted. It was very strange.

 In the years since I have received tales of Mr Bonsall verbally accosting people and intimidating folks just out for a day by the creek. In one such confrontation, a friend of mine, out for the day with his gal, was approached by Bonsall and two other men. Bonsall made it crystal clear that they were on his land and that he considered them trespassers. While I haven't had such an experience myself, I have heard various versions of stories like this (some of which have a more menacing tone) from people I associate with. I have also noticed that at least one of the signs which the Forest Service posted in 2009 in an effort to ensure that visitors stayed on the fire road leading to the canyon proper had been vandalized and "No Trespassing" had been written where the map was supposed to be. 

Getting back to the law suit, I get the impression that this could have been settled fairly equitably back in 2009. First, a bypass trail from the parking area could have easily been created. A foot bridge could have been built to cross Matilija Creek and a trail could have been created which ascended the opposite side of the creek from Mr Bonsall's ranch house and out buildings. This project would have been fairly cheap and the Forest Service could have used volunteers to construct the trail, and nobody would be walking right through the driveway of Bonsall's ranch residence anymore. For whatever reason this type of solution was never enacted, but the land owner is the one with the perceived rights and the perceived grievance so I suspect that Mr Bonsall was not interested in anything that resembled negotiation toward a solution for any party but his own.

To shed some more light and perspective on this development I will laboriously type every single letter of the article Lawsuit filed over access to Matilija, 01/15/15 VC Reporter, written by Chris O'Neal.

Group claims substantial evidence that
trail should be open for public use

     A coalition of conservation groups and Ojai residents calling themselves the Keep Access to Matilija Falls Open has filed a lawsuit against the owners of land they say should be open to the public.
     The lawsuit filed in Ventura County Superior Court is aimed at restoring public access to the falls, which the group says has been difficult since 2009, when the owner of the property crossed by the trail leading to the falls began confronting hikers and posted "No Trespassing" signs.
     Jeff Kuyper, Los Padres Forest Watch executive director, says the trail has been used by locals and travelers alike, dating back over 100 years.
     "People have used it since the 1900s and there's always been a trail there from since anyone can remember," said Kuyper.
     In 1979, the land was purchased by current property owner Buz Bonsall's family, but it wasn't until 2009 that Bonsall began attempting to keep hikers off the trail, according to Kuyper.
     "Some people felt that they were being harassed for something the public has been doing for over a century," said Kuyper. In a press release about the lawsuit, the group claims that Bonsall "began to aggressively confront hikers and took steps to prohibit access in the area" and threatened to cite hikers for trespassing.
     The coalition said that it believes that the group has strong evidence that a permanent public easement through the property should be granted. In California, all that is required to determine where an easement should be placed is that the land had been open and accessible to the public for a period of five years, uninterrupted. Alistair Croyne, conservation director with Keep Sespe Wild, says there is ample evidence that this has been the case.
     "That area has been popular with Ojai residents for over a hundred years," says Croyne, who says it's been difficult finding people who remember hiking on the trail before 1979 [*I can help with that], but there are documents, maps and guides that detail the trail from decades before the purchase. "It was a surprise to everybody when the property owner started to turn people back who were hiking up there."
     "I think the landowner trying to stop access now sort of flies in the face of public access that has been established," said Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, who represents District 1. "The best outcome is the landowner and the group negotiating an appropriate settlement that everyone can live with."
     Kuyper says that the lawsuit is a last resort and that negotiations began several years ago but the parties failed to reach an agreement. Kuyper is unsure of the reasons for the property owner's actions, but guessed that it was due to the increase in traffic.
     "People learn about a relatively easy waterfall to access - whenever you have more people you tend to get more trash and a small amount of people who don't respect the area," said Kuyper. "That can give everyone a bad name."
     Bonsall has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit. In the meantime, Kuyper hopes the two can come to an agreement.
     "It's always easier to sit down at the table and see if a solution could be worked out, but we just weren't able to get anything down in writing," Kuyper said.
     Bonsall declined to comment.

So I'd like to offer a toast to these champions of freedom and liberty, and you all should too. If this writing gets back to the pro-access side of the argument and it is determined that I can be of any assistance, by all means, contact me. My first recollection of Matilija was an outing with my father and another guy. I was five years old and it was 1978. Anyway, I really appreciate these efforts and I'm glad there are people and organizations with the will and the resources to secure access for the rest of us.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The TWO?!? Harris Tunnels?!?, Red Reef Trail

First off, I want to say that I'm so friggin' happy to be back on my feet that I want to do a little happy dance. But Homie don't dance, so instead I did 20 miles. Ha! Take that influenza virus!
Like most men I'm an absolute child about being sick. I hate it. Every sniffling minute of it is one big pity party.  But that's behind me now and to celebrate I bring you all an interesting riddle, one discovered quite by accident, as fortune would have it.

Apparently there are two (!) Harris Tunnels!
I did not know this.

Before I get to the Tunnel stuff I have to mention a few things about the day. Basically, the morning was glorious. Not surprisingly the Piedra Blanca/Sespe trailhead was packed with vehicles. I pulled into the last available slot and left the lot at 0700. Within a mile I was feeling perfect, just humming along. The sun was coming up, cresting the ridges downstream. Little birds were fluttering about, chirping. The morning air was brisk enough to require a little extra insulation. A quiet rushing noise rose from the creek on my right. A gentle sunrise breeze rose. The morning crystal clear. Things were as good as could be.  

I trucked right through the early miles, looking forward to reaching the junction at Bear Creek, where the Sespe Trail stars getting really scenic. Along the way I noticed numerous tents camped in the many unsanctioned sites sprinkled along the length of the creek. Here and there a thin streamer of smoke would curl out of the cottonwoods as I silently passed early risers. Clearly there were many, many people camping along the river this morning.

Eventually I reached the stretch of trail that crosses back to the north bank and starts a repetitive cycle of gently looping climbs and dips that circle around low shoulders of the hills above. Atop each little rise was a fresh view of the dramatic landscape ahead. It's easy for me to forget how pretty this stretch of country can be, how colorful the geology, how brightly the early sun beams off the serpentine curves of the Sespe. Eventually I reached the junction for the Red Reef Trail. I crossed the Sespe heading south and started up the tight little canyon which that trail ascends.

About a mile up the trail the canyon narrows dramatically, framed on either side by steep bands of red sandstone. The trail runs next to a small stream and sunlight dapples through the oak trees and occasional spruce. The canyon gets even tighter and around a twist in the trail one approaches what everyone knows as the Harris Tunnel.

This unusual feature was necessitated by the geology of the canyon. Over time the little creek had eroded a notch for itself in a huge, upthrust strata of sandstone. For the creek this was a completely sufficient solution but getting horses through the rocky creek would be a non-starter. The answer to this problem came in the form of drill holes bored in the rock on the east side of the problematic creek, these holes being packed with a judicious amount of dynamite or blasting powder. The result is a brief tunnel about 8ft high and 8ft wide. A rider would have to dismount and lead the horse through but otherwise the problem had been solved.  

This project was completed in 1907 by TJ Harris and RJ Harris. Says so on the wall of the tunnel, chiseled in their own hand. Another fun fact, there is an old site in Middle Sespe called the Harris Ranch, clearly the two are related. And that should be it right? Not so fast...

The south facing view of Harris Tunnel.
Harris Tunnel, looking north.

I stopped for a late breakfast at an open spot on the creek, got bored, and started doing what I'm programmed to do, which is to start poking my head in holes and scrambling over rocks and busting through brush and generally being a boy. An hour later I was a couple hundred feet up the east slope of the canyon wall when I spied what really looked to me like an old trail. Hmm. I dropped down a little bit and yeah, this wasn't some animal track. This was a real trail. Or, as I found out, remnants of a real trail. I picked up the path and started following it north toward the Sespe. It was overgrown and perilously washed out in places but a few minutes later I rounded a turn and twenty feet away was another tunnel. A big, round tunnel through red sandstone. I was a bit surprised to say the least. From this distance I could even see the marks left by the rock drilling for blasting. I wandered over to this feature and had a look see.

The first thing I did was walk through the tunnel and out the other side. I followed the forgotten trail a bit until it became impassable before returning to my find. First, this tunnel was actually two arches of rock. I concluded that the center of the roof had caved in at some point and made a natural skylight. Again I noted the bore holes. Unlike the Tunnel everyone agrees is "Harris Tunnel", this one didn't have any names chiseled into it, though I did find this one to be the more architecturally and esthetically pleasing to the eye. Pretty dang cool if you ask me.

Here's what I'd like to know: does anybody out there know the story behind this second tunnel? It's just a guess but I'm pretty sure this tunnel precedes the one on the Red Reef.

The "other" Harris Tunnel.

After that I couldn't think of anything else to do here so I went back down to the Sespe. It was so pretty in the creek there that I was reluctant to just cross and get back on the highway-like Sespe Trail. Besides, I could hear people on it from a quarter mile away. Sounded like it was crawling with tourists. I decided to stay in the creek for a while and avoid the masses. The day was warm by now and I stopped to splash my face and take in the sights. I'm glad I did because I was most of the way back to Bear Creek by the time the creek forced me back up to the main trail and into a mass of trudging troglodytes, slouched over with ill adjusted packs, yammering about how being in the great outdoors is so stress relieving. Blechh!

I'm not exaggerating when I say that on my way out I passed at least seventy (70!) people on the trail! I'm not exaggerating because I was counting heads and gave up at seventy! By my estimate there were probably close to two hundred people strung out along that trail and planning on an overnight stay. Probably a hundred people fighting over dipping a toe in the single pot of scummy, sulphury water at Willet Hot Spring. Ahh well, I'm sounding curmudgeonly. Must be my age or something. Pretty good to be back at it though. Take care. See you out there. And don't get that virus that's making the rounds, it's bad for your health.