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.


  1. Thank you for sharing the lawsuit. It will be interesting to see where this goes. I'm happy to see a group standing up for access.

  2. Interesting developments.

    Does he own the entire canyon and falls? Or Is there currently any sort of use trail that goes around or could be built around the private property if access is continued to be denied?

    1. Joseph,
      The property(s) in question border National Forest. The pretty parts of the Matilija Creek and the waterfalls are all on public lands.

  3. Quick clarification/question: I'm pretty sure Bonsall has nothing to do with the "Blue Heron Ranch". I believe his property is west of it. They are cool and he is a... well...he is not. Is there a ranch house on Shull's property too? He also owns a lot of Canada Larga and does (or did) own some parcels along the Ventura River south of Foster Park. Seems totally willing to ruin them. Not sure exactly what he wants though.

    1. Phil,
      I agree, the Blue Heron folks are not the problem. They have the second property along the walk into the canyon. I don't know exactly where Bonsall's property lines are but it appears that he has some portions along the creek, and all the land between the parking area and the Blue Heron. -DS

  4. Bonsall does not have any buildings on his land and he rarely drinks. Further, there have been many attempts to re-route the trail - all of which have been shot down by your beloved Kuyper or by lack of funds. It's frightening to me that ANYONE would consider Kuyper to be a "champion of freedom and liberty" - when this is the guy behind most of the actions of forestwatch and the access they deny under the guise of endangered species. I've always enjoyed your blog Mr. Stillman, but you got this issue dead wrong. This is about private property. Thoughtless hikers have been littering and spraying graffiti all over Mr. Bansall's property for years and if someone hurts themselves while tresspassing - he is the one who will get sued. Wake up everyone or your land might be next!!

    1. Anonymous,
      Your opinion is noted and appreciated. I am well aware of the troubles and liabilities associated with having a popular trail through private property. In many cases these concerns have been resolved outside of the courts.
      In 9 out of 10 cases involving access to the forest I will side with the pro access camp. And I admit that I do think of environmental impact when considering wether I am for or against a particular access issue. For example, I was for the closure of the TarCreek trail because of the impact humans were having on that ecosystem.
      I do believe that access to the Matilija drainage should be open to all and that there needs to be some resolution to this ongoing conflict. Presumably the Bonsall family knew of this trail and the popularity of it prior to purchasing the property. And for many years there did not appear to be an issue, but that has changed and the situation needs resolving. -DS

    2. The Bonsall family cut the road through the brush in the '70's to access their land. It was intended as their private road. Unfortunately, the public started using this road which leads right to what is now known as Flat Rock Camp. The original trail bypassed the camp and therefor, there was no tresspassing issue, no litter, no problems! Now, it is no longer feasible to take the trail back to it's original route. So, the land owner is getting sued. It doesn't seem right to me!

  5. What is the latest on the litigation re Matilija Access?

  6. I would like to know the latest on access to this trail as well.

  7. I am planning to hike to matilija falls this sunday or monday ( 13th feb 16 ). How is the situation right now, is there allready a agreement about crossing the farmproperties ?

  8. Hi Jan,

    I know it's past your hike window but I dug and went through everything and finally found the case. Case number 56-2015-00462750 and you can look up the minutes of the proceedings. Last month there was a statement saying that negotiations were proceeding well and that additional time might yield benefits. There is a potential trial set for March but who knows if that will happen or not.

    I hope that a negotiation can be settled upon.

  9. Hike. Hike. Hike.
    Tell Buz to take a hike.

  10. I had read several pieces about this feller in the VCS. He caught a lot of flak from the county about overstating the value of his Canada Larga property for development, and was denied permits to develop that property.

    This was the spark that ignited the situation with his Matilija Property, and he retaliated against the county by denying passage thru his property to the falls.

    I met him way back in 2002, 2003 on hikes to the falls and he was very polite and friendly. Not anymore, even though a new trail has been cut, but his Canada Larga
    property remains untouched as far as I know.

    Merry Christmas, MDD