The final roundups on Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island’s ranching history and National Park Service visions of future transformation

By Alex Wilson 12/08/2011

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 Photo by Gordon Long

Ranching buildings on Santa Rosa Island will be open for public access in the coming years as the park service takes full control of the historic ranch.

 

Nita Vail enjoyed happy days growing up on Santa Rosa Island, where her family ran a unique cattle ranch starting in 1901. Her fond memories include cowboys laboring on the isolated and windswept hillsides, and scampering animals like deer and elk descended from those brought from the mainland by her ancestors, beginning in 1909.

 
Vail’s earliest recollections are watching her father, Al Vail, manage the historic ranch, which includes the oldest wood-framed building in Santa Barbara County. When she and her cousins were old enough, they helped, too. “We were lucky enough to ride the roundups when we were young,” says Nita. “They were long hard days, but really a lot of fun. And it was incredibly beautiful country.”


Santa Rosa’s ranching heritage is fading into history because her family’s direct involvement on the island ends this month, 25 years after it was sold to the National Park Service. 

         
Park officials hope to lure more people to Santa Rosa starting next year, once professional hunters eradicate the last of the deer and elk. Large sections of the island have often been closed to most park visitors due to safety concerns about a commercial deer- and-elk hunting business.


A new general management plan for Channel Islands National Park should be released next year. Currently, the park lacks roadless wilderness areas or overnight visitor accommodations that don’t require camping, but they might be created on Santa Rosa. Superintendent Russell Gallipeau says Santa Rosa’s characteristics could open the door to further park development. “Santa Rosa has the most potential for change, because it’s an island that’s highly underutilized today,” says Gallipeau.


Public input will be collected on new amenities people desire. Options include converting a bunkhouse into a hostel, or transforming the historic ranch house into a bed and breakfast. “You can have visitor contact stations with some exhibits, possibly even museum types of things that can tell about the ranching history and, also, maybe some food service. So the whole idea is to reoccupy those buildings, but for a public use, not for private use,” says Gallipeau.


I had a chance to enjoy Santa Rosa’s rugged and scenic backcountry with my wife, Dawn, and our friend Dawn Brooks during September 2009. We obtained permits to backpack to a secluded beach at Ford Point, about 12 miles from the main ranch.


Since a commercial hunt was under way, we were restricted to certain roads leading to our destination. We saw some of the island’s last deer running free and heard occasional gunfire. Barbed-wire fences and weathered corrals dotted the landscape.


Beachcombing through sand where the only footsteps were ours, we saw tide pools teeming with crabs in rocky crevices and pink, green and blue sea anemones. A curious sea lion hauled out of the ocean and basked on the warm sand not far from where we were sunning ourselves.

 
We watched the full moon rise over Santa Cruz Island. We encountered a cute spotted skunk. It felt like hiking back to a long-past period of California history.


Gallipeau says opportunities for that kind of journey will soon be enhanced. “We’re going to see a lot more use, especially backcountry use with the ability to hike for days and days without having to run into other people,” says Gallipeau. “It’s also one of the only islands that have fresh water, so that you can accommodate those multiday experiences.”

 

Island history

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 Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Island Foundation

Kay, Nita and Al Vail on the ranch at Santa Rosa Island, circa 1962.

 

Santa Rosa’s fascinating natural and cultural history reflects California’s past in many ways. During the last ice age, ocean levels were much lower, and all the northern Channel Islands comprised one giant island known as Santarosae.

 
North America’s oldest human remains were found on Santa Rosa. Pigmy mammoth skeletons have also been discovered and scientists debate whether they shared the island with human settlers.


Santa Rosa boasts numerous rare animal and plant species, including island foxes and Torrey pines. Some island species are found nowhere else on earth.


A complex Chumash culture included solidly built canoes called tomols for fishing and trips to the mainland, and manufacturing shell money that was traded great distances away. Chumash lore says they originated on the islands, so it’s a sacred homeland to their ancestors.


European voyages of discovery brought significant changes. During Spanish days the Chumash were relocated to mainland missions.


Twenty-two years after Mexico won independence from Spain, California Gov. Manuel Micheltorena granted Santa Rosa to brothers Jose and Carlos Carrillo during 1843, and ranching began.


In 1901, Nita Vail’s great-great-grandfather Walter Vail and business partner John “J.V.” Vickers started buying shares in the property.


Channel Islands National Park was created by Congress during 1980. Santa Rosa was sold to the government for $29 million during 1986 even though there was strong sentiment to keep ranching.


Vail and Vickers started out with a successful cattle ranch in Arizona, and briefly ran cattle on Catalina Island. Nita says it was a brave decision to try ranching on Santa Rosa. “When the island came up for sale, they were interested and not intimidated by some of the challenges that had faced others looking at the acquisition,” says Nita.


One of the most unusual aspects of the ranch was the need to ship cattle and supplies across the turbulent ocean. Boats were customized with cattle ramps, but during World War II, one was taken by the U.S. military for fighting in the South Pacific and never returned. During a period that followed, the pair used a boat that required the cattle to jump off and swim to shore.

 SR3

 Photo by Gordon Long

Remnants of the historic ranch will be preserved for visitors coming to the island. 


Island cowboys came from a variety of backgrounds and had to handle the isolation of island life. Some participated in the Bracero Program around the middle of the 20th century that permitted temporary workers from Mexico.


Taking care of the cattle and the 53,195-acre ranch, 26 miles from the mainland coast involved extremely hard work. “You were either fixing fence or fixing equipment, and they were very long days. The whole autumn was taken riding the island, to inventory and doctor the cattle,” says Nita. “You’d shoe your own horses. You’d make a lot of your own leather and saddles and repairs. So you were pretty proficient as a cowboy.”  

   
Weather conditions on the island were frequently difficult. “I’d say three-quarters of the time, the wind is blowing 30 to 45 miles and hour, so it’s not a tropical paradise. It definitely has a lot of challenges,” says Nita.


Despite the hardships, Nita remembers having fun with her cousins. “We played in tents on the lawn. It was just a very isolated but special place,” says Nita.


Nita also learned about natural history from scientists invited to the island, including Phil Orr, a renowned curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.


Orr discovered the oldest known human remains in North America known as Arlington Springs Man from about 13,000 years ago. “He was smart enough to put the bones he found in plaster so that they were available for new technologies to date them, and that’s a world-famous find,” says Nita.


Santa Rosa’s commercial deer and elk hunts are also something Nita is proud of. They were hardy animals descended from mule deer transported from the Kaibab area of Arizona and Roosevelt elk from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The animals were nationally recognized for attributes like size and antlers. Hunters paid thousands of dollars for the experience. Four thousand pounds of meat from the final survivors was donated to the Ventura County Rescue Mission.


When Santa Rosa was sold to the park service, officials agreed to phase out the ranching and hunting over a 25 year period. But that plan was stymied by concerns about non-native animal impact on the environment. The Environmental Defense Center sued the park service on behalf of the National Park Conservation Association, alleging impacts on endangered plants and native animals.


The lawsuit’s settlement in 1998 brought cattle ranching to an early end, and by last December only about 100 deer and 50 elk were left.


Nita wishes deer and elk could have remained as an attraction for future visitors. “I, personally, think we’re killing them for the wrong reason because these are majestic animals. Even to leave a few, I can’t understand why that’s an issue because the public looks at them and loves them,” says Nita.


Environmental Defense Center Staff Attorney Brian Segee says they wanted the animals removed because they ate native plants and trampled archeological sites.


“The island has been within a national park for 25 years and it’s not meant to be managed as grazing land or a game farm. The park service is directed under it’s statutes to manage the area for its natural diversity and for the public. And so to have much of the island closed for most of the year so a private hunt can be conducted is basically the opposite of what a national park is supposed to be,” says Segee.

Future historical interpretation

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 Photo by Gordon Long

Bechers Bay, seen from the Torrey pine forest, remains in pristine condition. 

 

Park officials hope to honor and interpret all facets of Santa Rosa’s rich history as visitation increases. They’ll develop exhibits with help from descendants of Chumash islanders and families that ranched there. Gallipeau says they’re fortunate that people like Nita Vail are around to help them share that era of island history.


“Many times, when a park takes over an area that had some history, there is nobody who can tell that story,” says Gallipeau. “In this particular case, Vail and Vickers very much still exists, and it would be really important for them to help tell that story in their voices, not a park service interpreter. I can envision walking around the ranch and hearing recordings of Nita Vail.”


Most visitors travel to Santa Rosa with Island Packers Cruises, and some fly from Camarillo airport with Channel Islands Aviation. Boat access has already improved since the recent completion of a new $16 million pier that replaced the historic but dilapidated one built for cattle long ago.

 
Island Packers co-owner Cherryl Connally has mixed feelings about offering more visitor services beyond the beautiful campground in Water Canyon, but says her company may bid to operate new amenities. She says, even with hunting restrictions, campers could still explore the sandy crescent shoreline of Bechers Bay and hike through the rare and beautiful Torrey pine forest.


Connally became emotional talking about the end of the island’s ranching days. “It’s the turning of a chapter. It’s the last of the northern Channel Islands where families owned the islands, and we’ve experienced knowing all those families,” says Connally. “It’s a major change and we’re very sad for the Vails and Vickers. They are part of the history and they should be proud of what they’ve done.”


Nita hopes others recognize the significance of ranching to island history. She edited a beautifully illustrated photography book called Cowboy Island that’s sold at the park’s Ventura Visitor Center and nostalgically relates the last days of Santa Rosa’s cowboys, cattle and horses. It was published by the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, whose mission is to protect and preserve the cultural histories of all eight California Channel Islands.


“The cultural history of ranching is important in that it’s a part of a window into California’s history. When the ranch ended it was very much a traditional California ranch with as much legacy as you’ll see anywhere in the country,” says Nita. 

 
While some amount of ranching happened on all the Channel Islands, the rolling hills of Santa Rosa were best suited for cattle, according to Nita. “San Miguel is extremely exposed. There were sheep that were run there and there is history of that, but it was harsh. Santa Cruz has extreme diversity, extreme steep slopes, and it was much more for sheep than cattle, though both were run there,” says Nita. “I feel privileged to have experienced it and still be a part of it.” 

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