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An Ecological and Historical Portrait of the Coast at Hollister Ranch

On the Gaviota Coast, it seems like the land is in charge.

Driving north, the 101 twists its way out of Santa Barbara, leaving the office parks and the commercial strips behind in Goleta. It curls around smooth brown hills like ocean swells, until instead of hills you see mountains in the distance: the Santa Ynez, crowding and hiding the coast. They loom as the road gets closer and closer, until at the last moment it turns away from the coast and climbs up a pass and away to the north and east.

Or, coming south, the road drops like a stream into a stream-carved canyon, and you drop with it, straight down almost to the ocean until the 101 turns south at the water’s edge, and hugs the coast down to Ventura.

An aerial view of Hollister Ranch.

Either way, you’re not getting to Hollister Ranch.

The usual story about Hollister Ranch is that the wealthy owners of its 136 subdivided parcels have worked together to keep the public from accessing the one of the “last remaining undeveloped coastal areas in California.” The first half of that claim is certainly true. And when you’re there, it is tempting to think of this land as untouched. From Gaviota State Park, the nearest public land, Hollister seems completely inaccessible, hidden behind a rocky headland. It’s as if the land wasn’t meant for people; as if the mountains turned the road away.

But to suggest that the way that people manage the land at Hollister Ranch today is “natural” is misleading at best; as the word “natural” so often is. While Hollister is less developed than other places, calling this part of the coast “undeveloped” or “untarnished” or “pristine” fails to recognize its complex history of ownership and use. What follows is an attempt to make this hard-to-see place’s history and ecology a little more visible.

A Turning Point

The Gaviota Coast runs 21 miles from Goleta to Point Conception. Hollister Ranch makes up 8 ½ of those miles, ending just east of Point Conception. This puts Hollister in the middle of a transition zone: at Point Conception, the coast turns north like the 101, marking the end of Southern California’s mostly east-west coastline and the beginning of the north-south oriented Central Coast.

The area is also an ecological boundary. The Santa Ynez mountains are the westernmost extension of the Transverse Ranges, which run east-west through the state and include the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains closer to Los Angeles. At Hollister, these mountains form what a National Park study of the area calls a “topographic barrier” between two ecoregions. Plants, animals, and weather patterns from the Central Western region don’t quite make it over the mountains to the Southwestern region, and vice versa; so there’s overlap only on this narrow strip of coast.

In the water off Point Conception there’s yet another boundary, between two huge ocean currents that define two huge marine regions. Here, the warm water of the Southern California Bight mixes with the cold, south-moving California Current. The colliding currents create an “upwelling,” a pattern in which cold, deep water comes to the surface, carrying nutrients that support huge oceanic food chains. Whales, for example, come to these waters from as far away as Hawaii to feed.

Stream flowing in the Santa Ynez mountains. | Spencer Robins
Stream flowing in the Santa Ynez mountains. | Spencer Robins

All these collisions, of currents and species, give the area around Point Conception “a high concentration of globally significant, diverse, rare species and habitat,”according to the National Park Service.

One example — of a currently northern species creeping (back) into the southern waters at Point Conception — is otters. Sea otters occupied the entire coast from Alaska to Baja California before the 18th and 19th century fur trade almost wiped them out. Otters were believed to be extinct in California until someone found a single group of 50 in Big Sur in 1938. Since then, the state and the federal government have helped those otters and their descendants recolonize the Central Coast.

For a while, a law meant to protect the fishing industry from voracious otters in the Santa Barbara Channel declared the area just south of Point Conception a “no-otter zone”: U.S. Fish and Wildlife had to catch any otter swimming south and move it back. Fish and Wildlife moved hundreds of otters until they gave up in 1993 and formally declared the policy a failure in 2012. Now otters are free to live anywhere they want along the coast.

But so far, the water off Hollister Ranch and Gaviota is as far south as they’ve extended their range, and it took them years even to get there. According an Ecological Society of America study, this is because otters are extremely attached to their home kelp beds; only transient males leave for new feeding grounds, and it can be 5-10 years before other otters follow. When Fish and Wildlife moved 140 otters south to San Nicolas Island in the 1980s (this was an exception to the no-otter zone), most of the otters swam right back. Otters have spread slowly and sporadically, and their population has stalled just below where they could be “delisted” as an endangered species.

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Meanwhile, the density of species on the Gaviota Coast has made the area a focal point for possible conservation efforts. In 2003, the National Park Service  studied whether the Gaviota Coast would be a good site for a National Seashore, a federally protected and maintained area for recreation and the study of wildlife. It concluded that the area was “suitable for inclusion in the National Park System,” but that designation was not “feasible,” “due to strong opposition expressed by study area landowners” unwilling to sell land for public use. The report goes out of its way to note that the Park Service never asked owners to sell; “this information has been provided independently by the landowners.”

Other conservation efforts have been more successful. The authors of the aforementioned study suggest that otters expanded into this area in the first place because in 2013 the state declared the area the Point Conception State Marine Reserve, which helped preserve the kelp-based ecosystems where otters feed.

The reserve was created with the support of the Wishtoyo Foundation, which advocates for environmental policies informed by traditional Chumash values. Point Conception has been a place of special spiritual importance for the Chumash people for hundreds if not thousands of years. In 1978, Chumash protesters, along with opposition from local landowners, helped delay a proposal to build a Liquefied Natural Gas plant on a small plot of land in between Point Conception and Hollister Ranch; eventually the project was dropped. Today, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council advocates for a larger “Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary” encompassing the waters from Hollister Ranch up to Morro Bay to protect important environmental and cultural sites, including submerged Chumash settlements.

This protective legacy has helped otters make it as far south as they have.

Map showing the topography and oceanography of Gaviota Coast. | Extracted from from the National Park Service’s Gaviota Coast Feasibility Study, produced by the Pacific Great Basin Support Office of the National Park Service.
Map showing the topography and oceanography of Gaviota Coast. | Extracted from from the National Park Service’s Gaviota Coast Feasibility Study, produced by the Pacific Great Basin Support Office of the National Park Service.

Divided Coast

The Hollister coast is shaped by the Santa Ynez mountains, which divide south from central regions of California, blocking storms, and rolling almost to the waters edge; they make the land in and around Hollister Ranch one of the rare spots in Southern California where — maybe, occasionally — a sea lion might spot a mountain lion.

The mountains also draw rain. A report by the Coastal Ranches Conservancy (a nonprofit organization founded by Hollister owners to fund projects in and around the Ranch) describes the Gaviota Coast as one of the “highest rainfall areas” on the Southern California coast. The Santa Ynez mountains funnel this rain into streams that, rare for Southern California, run year round.

These streams cut canyons where they flow toward the ocean; so the coast here alternates between rocky headlands, narrow beaches, and small wetlands where these streams reach the water. The dense concentration of ecological zones — intertidal rocks, sandy beaches, freshwater streams and wetlands, and scrubby uplands — is another reason this coast is dense with species: harbor seals haul out on the rocks; endangered snowy plovers rest, and sometimes nest, on the beaches; and steelhead trout spawn in some of the streams.

The iridescent southern steelhead is the southern population of the oceangoing form of the rainbow trout — a subspecies of a subspecies. They spend most of their lives in the ocean, but have to return to freshwater streams every few years to spawn. And unlike their northern cousins leaping up roaring northwest rivers, the Southern steelhead depends on southern streams that trickle to the ocean. In Southern California, most of these have been dammed, developed, or concretized.

It’s estimated there are about 500 southern steelhead left. The fish have become a kind of fantasy indicator for imagined, restored ecosystems elsewhere in California. The most ambitious plans for a rewilded Los Angeles River imagine steelhead swimming past downtown L.A. For now, the fish depend on the few places on the coast where unimpeded streams reach the ocean, making the Hollister Ranch streams an element in a vast, interconnected, salt and freshwater, human and nonhuman, system.

Map of cultural resources in the region. | Extracted from from the National Park Service’s Gaviota Coast Feasibility Study, produced by the Pacific Great Basin Support Office of the National Park Service.
Map of cultural resources extracted from from the National Park Service’s Gaviota Coast Feasibility Study, produced by the Pacific Great Basin Support Office of the National Park Service.

Settlement

Hollister’s canyon-mouths have also been important sites for people. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Chumash inhabited this area as far back as 9,000 years ago. They used settlements at canyon mouths up and down the coast as seasonal camps throughout that period. A paper by the Wishtoyo Foundation describes how these settlements on the Gaviota Coast were part of a regional trading network traversed by tomols, a canoe made from redwood planks.

Then Europeans nearly wiped out the Chumash with disease and genocidal Mission violence. In 1791, the Spanish crown granted most of the Gaviota coast to José Francisco Ortega. In the 1860s Ortega family sold their land to the Hollisters, who owned it through 1965. For those 200 years the land was a sheep and cattle ranch.

In order to more easily transport and sell their livestock, the Hollisters encouraged the construction of a pier at Gaviota and later a train to enable trade along the coast. The pier is gone, but freight and Amtrak trains still use the tracks; trestles now cross the canyon mouths.

The train is just one example of the marks human history has left on this land. Others go deeper. The Wishtoyo Foundation paper also describes how Chumash people regularly burned the landscapes that they lived in. One purpose of burning was to encourage the growth of certain grasses whose seeds the Chumash ate; one result was that the landscape before European invasion probably included more rolling grassland and less of the scrubby chapparal that characterizes Southern California today.

Today, Hollister Ranch is a cattle ranch as well as a residential development. And again, these patterns of use have a profound effect on the nonhuman beings that live here. Research shows that cattle grazing profoundly alters the distribution of both native and nonnative plants in California ecosystems. And Hollister Ranch is crossed by numerous roads connecting its many substantial homes.

The land, in other words, has been shaped by people for thousands of years. That’s not to say that ancient Chumash land-use had the same impact as Hollister Ranch’s patterns of cattle-grazing and luxury home development do today; but the land has been shaped.

A hazy view of the Santa Ynez mountains and a few buildings in the distance. | Spencer Robins
A hazy view of the Santa Ynez mountains and a few buildings in the distance. | Spencer Robins

It is true, however, that Hollister and the Gaviota Coast remain less developed and more agricultural than much of the Southern California coast. That’s largely the result of policies that have little to do with coastal access.

Hollister Ranch is a ranch, for example, in part because under the Williamson Act the homeowners receive a sizable exemption on their property tax. And the Gaviota Coast is less developed than the rest of Southern California in part because zoning laws there require large, 100-acre parcels.

All of this is why describing Hollister as “untouched” or suggesting that public access would destroy its fragile ecosystems is misleading. This is not a place without people. Describing what the coast would look like “without” people means looking back 10,000 years, when sea levels were lower by 150 feet, when there was one, massive Channel Island, when pygmy mammoths and saber tooth tigers roamed the area. It’s neither a reasonable nor a necessary way of defining what’s valuable about this place. Hollister Ranch is a natural and a human landscape. Who uses it, and how, has always been a choice.

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