California Island Quagmire: Shape Up and Sheep Out

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When author Margaret Eaton first visited Santa Cruz island off the coast of southern California, she was amazed by the huge herds of sheep grazing on the island. She later wrote in her classic about life there, "Diary of a Sea Captain's Wife," that she felt as if the sheep might overflow the bounds of the island and fall off the rugged cliffs into the Pacific Ocean.

Much has changed since 1910, when it was the largest sheep ranch in America.

In 1996, it is on the verge of becoming the latest and final addition to the Channel Islands National Park.

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Most of the island's territory has long since passed to the collective ownership of either the government or the Nature Conservancy, a private preservation group. But the eastern end of the island has remained the property of retired lawyer Francis Gherini - until now.

The omnibus parks bill passed in the last session of the 104th Congress will clear the way for the National Park Service to take over Mr. Gherini's ranch property early next year.

After completing the takeover, the Park Service will begin restoration efforts on Santa Cruz. The 62,000-acre island has changed since a group of San Francisco businessmen bought it in 1869 to begin a ranching operation. But just how - or whether - to return it to its former state is a hot issue here.

Parts of the old ranch that survived on the east end have historical value. People have asked whether too much has changed already to turn back the clock.

Santa Cruz is home to unique species such as the spotted skunk and island fox. But the island bears the imprint of human habitation that has continued nearly unbroken for the past 10,000 years since the Chumash Indians first settled here.

The sheep, which so impressed Mrs. Eaton, were added later to the ranching ventures that took over the property after the Chumash were deported to Spanish missions on the mainland.

Oddly enough, the now-ownerless sheep that graze the east end of the island have come to embody the philosophical divide that exists over planned restoration efforts.

On one side, environmentalists blame the sheep for persistent problems with overgrazing and erosion on Santa Cruz island's east end. In their eyes, the Gherini ranch and the sheep that populate it are a blight on an otherwise unspoiled land.

"As long as the nonnative animals are on the island, all the rest of the ecology is threatened, not to mention the cultural and paleontological sites," says Brian Hughes of the Washington D. C.-based National Parks and Conservation Association.

But the historical-preservation crowd says that the legacy of the ranching era on the east end - sheep included - belong to Santa Cruz as much as the pygmy mammoths and giant mice that roamed here in prehistoric times.

"It's impossible to pick a point in time when the island was untouched. It is creating something artificial," says Marla Daily of the restoration plans. "How far back do you go?" Ms.Daily is a founder of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, which works to preserve the historical legacy of the ranch era on Santa Cruz. She hopes to see some of the sheep preserved in what she calls "heritage herds."

The Park Service will officially take the Gherini property over early next year, but resolving the issue of what place people and their businesses have on the island will take much longer.

Philosophical differences aside, the sheep debate is largely a battle over the fate of the recreational ranch concession that operates two bed-and-breakfasts as well as hunting, kayaking, helicopter, and boat tours.

"There will be contentious discussions on what to do with the concessions after the Park Service takes over," says Mr. Hughes. "Whether [the Park Service] asks us to participate or not, we will use the opinions of our membership to drive them in favor of environmental protection."

According to Jarret Owens, who has operated the tour concessions on Santa Cruz for over a decade, "If everybody can work together, that's great. But I'm afraid they'll decide to do a five-year study on the whole island and shut the place down while they decide what to do with it."

Whether or not Mr. Owens keeps his operation running in some form under Park Service oversight, the day of the private rancher appears to be passing on the Channel Islands.

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