TresPass A volunteer post signs about the closure of Matilija Canyon’s Hot Springs.

Traffic at Ojai hot springs to cool off

Community leaders agree that land needs time to heal, rejuvenate

By Shane Cohn 05/23/2013

Let it be.

That’s the message the property owners of Matilija Canyon’s Hot Springs are spreading through the community, and beyond.

The owners have closed down the area for up to six months to allow the land to rest and rehabilitate, after years of public abuse.

“Four generations of our family have been going up to Matilija Canyon and have been watching the land become abused and trashed,” said Gunnar Lovelace, 35, who purchased 20 acres of the surrounding land with his family more than a year ago. “This piece of land is a prime opportunity for us to model sustainable stewardship of land.”

The hot springs have become littered with trash, graffiti, alcohol and drugs, stripping the sanctity and natural solace from the sacred area, explained Lovelace.

After the land’s resting period, Lovelace will reopen the hot springs through a community nonprofit, Ecotopia, of which he is also co-founder. Upon arrival, visitors will be asked to give something to the land, whether it be environmental or cash donation.

In the meantime, Lovelace is working with Ojai law enforcement on proper signage to warn about trespassing and enforcement. Sgt. Steve Arthur, a Ventura County sheriff’s deputy assigned to Ojai, said he’s heard rumors about unreported violent crimes like rape and assault happening in the hot springs area, but most of the calls from the area are for vehicular burglaries.

“In the last 10 years, just vehicle theft, and some cars get broken into but not higher than other trailheads,” said Arthur.  “We haven’t issued any trespassing citations up there at all or made any arrests.”

Early in the morning on May 14, there was a small brush fire near the hot springs. The fire was less than two acres and easily contained by county and forest service firefighters. There has been no cause yet determined, but Lovelace speculated that a party at the hot springs likely started it.

Los Padres Forest, which surrounds Matilija Canyon, is in level 3 fire restriction, which typically doesn’t happen until August, explained Andrew Madsen, forest public affairs officer.

“The public needs to be extra-careful out there,” he said. “What this guy (Lovelace) is doing is the right thing — getting a group that takes responsibility to make sure everything is on board out there. Lots of folks don’t have that wilderness mentality of taking out what you take in.”

For about five years prior to the Lovelace family taking over the land, it was owned by out-of-state private lenders who had foreclosed on the previous owners. Because ownership wasn’t local, there was nobody to steward the private land and it became known as public. Because of the social media, said Lovelace, word spread about the hot springs. Soon, visitors were coming from all over California, and the crowds began spoiling the land.

Local Chumash elder and Ojai resident Julie Tumamait-Stenslie has been encouraging Ecotopia’s philosophy of giving back to the hot springs and supporting the idea to allow the area to heal.

“The hot springs have become unsafe, unclean and unsanitary and away from the sanctity of what the land is used for,” she said. “If people are going there to receive healing from those waters, it has become so disruptive. In order to have peace and healing, you need tranquility.”

In the Ojai community, Tumamait-Stenslie said she has heard gr    umblings about the closing of the hot springs and how there should be free access to the springs at all times.

“To show gratitude, let it rest for a moment,” she said. “Let it regenerate, rejuvenate, and let it be at peace for a while. What’s wrong with that?” 

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