Roaming Charges

The landscape in Southern California has not existed independent of human intention for more than 15,000 years. Over the last two and a half centuries, evidence of that intention has increased exponentially as population levels have increased. Residential, commercial, sports, education, entertainment, industrial, military and agricultural development – and the transportation infrastructure that link these elements – now dominate much of the land. Prior to the Spanish, Mexican and Anglo-American colonization, Indians shaped the landscape to their ends primarily through the use of fire – rendering the land more amenable to their hunting practices and seed gathering (Another Day) - but the scale of this impact was limited by their relatively small population and Neolithic technology.

My interest is in the edge between land that has been obviously intentioned, so to speak, and the acreage that is still contested – wildland upon which a variety of interests, oil, logging, recreation, ranching and mining (for instance) have designs and which are variously privileged by its owners - usually the Federal or State Government. There are thus two tiers of intention, one that impacts the institutionally or privately owned environment and the other that impacts government land, or ‘wilderness’.

Here at the interface, there are sometimes strange adjacencies: instances of public and private land conjoined in awkward entanglement. Take Black Mountain, known to the Chumash as Kahus, or Bear Mountain, which presents an iconic cone shape to us here at the east end of the upper valley and appears to have a definitive summit. Anyone who has paid attention driving east along the 150 past Soule public golf course knows that the mountain is actually a ridge line that runs parallel to the road before terminating at the top of the grade – the switch back that climbs a thousand feet to the Upper Valley.

Access to the mountain is through Dennison Park, a County car park, picnic, barbeque and camping facility. The park backs up to Black Mountain Ranch, a vast property owned by Richard Gilleland who made a fortune with the Health care supply conglomerates Tyco and Amsco. His ranch, part of the original Fernando Tico Mexican land grant of 1837, was formerly owned by the Dennison family. It is now immaculately ranched and fiercely protected. In order to walk along the ridge-top fire road, which cuts through dense chaparral, it is necessary to hop a six foot oil-pipe fence elaborately bound with rusting barbed wire. The ridge offers stunning north views of the lower valley over the golf course, Lake Casitas is to the west, and to the east, distant vistas to Koenigstein Road are visible with the Santa Paula mountains looming beyond; to the south, the view is of the ranch, where oak meadowland is threaded with pastures grazed by occasional groups of lustrous cattle. The diminutive publicly owned park, at just over 39 acres, offers an enticing gateway to the mountain-top wilderness at the edge of the 6,000 acre ranch but this promise, for most fence-abiding citizens, is cut short by the aggressive barriers to its privately held neighbor.

In hopping fences to access ancient pathways (Kahus was a Chumash sacred mountain) I assume my common law Freedom to Roam - rights which, in many European countries have now been formally legislated. In America, less so. As an individual one is restricted to National, State, County and City parks and some Bureau of Land Management (BLM) territory. In this country, rights of property trump the individual’s freedom to roam, but oil companies, loggers and mining operations play by more liberal rules and often claim prescriptive rights over private land. The Mirada oil company, for instance, is currently suing the Rainwaters, owners of the old County Honor Farm at the top of Koenigstein, for an easement across their land to access wells that, in a recent CUP hearing, they claimed they were abandoning (see CFROG).

In the land of the free we have allowed ourselves to be penned in. Because of the vast system of National parks, a concept pioneered by the U.S.A. and initiated by Teddy Roosevelt, few are complaining – but my purview is strictly local; I am not interested in driving to the Sierras to trudge through wilderness when there is so much right on my doorstep. Indeed, the tangle of wilderness, transportation corridors, residential, industrial, and commercial development, agricultural and ranching acreages and everywhere oil drilling, amidst the rivers, valleys, plains, beaches and mountains of Ventura County is of far more appeal to me than pristine landscapes that, until the last century, have rarely known the footsteps of humankind. There is a reason that much of the Sierras, for instance, were spurned by Native Americans – they are lands where it is wiser to let the tree-sprits and glacier lake sprites well alone.

The etheric skein that lays over these parts is harder to comprehend but when spirits are discerned their mood is likely to have been tempered by long association with the human psyche and its intention. More often, earth’s primeval, animating energy has simply been extirpated by a gross trampling of the land. This was certainly my impression when walking along the crumbling asphalt road that snakes along Black Mountain ridge – recent tire tracks suggested frequent passage of heavy trucks - belonging to either the fire department or the Ranch – or both. Any notion of tracing ancient Chumash or Oak Grove horizon inhabitation was quickly dispelled. Nevertheless, were I to regularly tramp this path I imagine some sense of its past might ultimately make itself felt.

Meanwhile, I am poring over the National Geographic map to the Los Padres National Forest East and seeing blocks of land along the Santa Clara River administered by the Nature Conservancy and marked ‘No Public Access’, some of which extend more than two and a half miles along the river. What barriers, I wonder, have they erected to my freedom to roam? We (freedom-loving-roamers) are assailed on two fronts: by perniciously paranoid private interests and well-intentioned conservationists. Both bring their values (or intentions) to the landscape in ways that are exclusionary. Simon Schama in writing of the Charta de Foresta, the Magna Carta of the woods, established in 1217, suggests that “ it was not a simple matter of greenwood liberty defying sylvan despotism, each wanted to exploit the woods in their own way”.

I certainly have an agenda in the wildland: to mine it for its historic, pre-historic and botanic vibrations – for my personal pleasure, enlightenment and psychic titillation. As well, I have a generalized interest in preserving and observing a particular aesthetic gestalt (comprised of elements referred to above) that privileges decay, industrial process, random adjacencies, edge conditions and native flora and fauna and disadvantages the new, suburban lushness, exotic flora and commonplace juxtapositions. These preferences can be easily accommodated if I can roam where I want – but most often I am corralled within the mundane. The pristine wildernesses carefully curated within our National Parks are one such common place and therefore hold little appeal.

We exist in a fast-changing world where the divide between rich and poor is becoming more entrenched. The rich maintain their wealth by the expansion and elaboration of a financial-technology complex that operates almost independently of ecological concerns while the poor resort to extracting food and water from the land in ways that allow for little consideration of its sustainability. In the diminishing space between the two, scientists, academics, conservationists and artists are left to consider their powerlessness in attempts to preserve the planet. I am one of the powerless, my goal is but to observe and sometimes record: while I have the strength to hop fences I am determined to maintain my freedom to roam.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the well-written article... As a regular camper at Dennison, I routinely peer over the gate at the Black Mountain Fire Road and have wished I could quietly hike across that ridge and enjoy the beautiful views. The fact that this road is safe a easily navigable by foot, and leads practically to Soule Park and downtown Ojai makes it the perfect candidate for a great hiking/biking trail.

    When I asked the County Parks Department about the possibility of opening this up as a trail for public use, they said: "The land owner [Gilleland] is adamant that he doesn’t want people trespassing on his property. Therefore, visitors of Dennison Park are urged to avoid the area." They finished by stating that: "there is no possibility of opening the road to the public."

    That sounds pretty finite and I think they expect that to end the discussion.

    However I'm not so sure that Mr. Gilleland couldn't be motivated somehow to either donate the strip of land to the County or permit public access in exchange for certain benefits. For example the obvious property tax benefit, or an agreement that the County would perform regular road maintenance in exchange for its use. Not to mention the positive publicity for Mr. Gilleland and his multi-million dollar foundation.

    As tempting as it's been for me to jump that fence and go on a little hike, knowing what I know now, I certainly don't want to get arrested for trespassing, however I am saddened and disappointed that a very wealthy man who perhaps never even walks this road has it within his power to deny everyone else the beauty which it provides.

    I'm not well gifted at speaking or negotiating, but I would love to meet with Mr. Gilleland and ask him about this. Is there really no way to make this happen?