The Fight to Save Southern Cal’s Last Pristine Coast

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For the past 20 years, 20 environmental activists have waged a battle to preserve the last 20 miles of undeveloped shoreline in Southern California, the Gaviota Coast, from residential development and urban sprawl. A new film called, appropriately, The Twenty will explore both the past and future of this final pristine pocket, which stretches north of the town of Goleta, near Santa Barbara.

For Surfrider Foundation CEO Jim Moriarity, the efforts of these 20 preservationists bring to mind another noteworthy land conservation project: the North Shore of Oahu. “Anyone who has ever been to Oahu’s North Shore will agree that it’s not ruined. It still has a ‘country’ feel to it,” Moriarity wrote on his blog. “The primary reason for this is that a few people worked to keep country ‘country’…That same story is happening on the northern elements of California’s southern coast.”

To tell the Gaviota story, Surfrider and Santa Barbara-based filmmaker Scott Walker have joined to make the movie. Their first step, raising money, is in the bag, and production will begin “as soon as we can catch our breath,” said Walker. Adventure Journal caught up with him to hear more about this rarefied piece of Southern California wilderness.

What’s unique about this stretch of the coast?
It’s an unbelievably open landscape with a Mediterranean climate and a massive amount of biodiversity, including wild deer and mountain lions. The surf is gorgeous, the waves are diverse, and there are a lot of breaks up and down the coast. It’s kind of like surfing back before California was ever developed. There’s a real sense of exploration.

Among other things, The Twenty are a group of people. Who are they?
The Twenty are all Surfrider members and they’re all volunteers. Some of them are the founders of the Santa Barbara Chapter of Surfrider, which was started 20 years ago, and some are newer members who have been a driving force in the past ten years.

What are their specific goals?
Their mission is to preserve the pristine nature of the Gaviota Coast and to keep the urban threshold where it is. A lot of landowners pass their property on to their kids and to their kids’ kids. It goes generations deep. Property taxes have gone up so much there that the pressure builds up financially and it’s hard for them to keep up with property taxes. Some folks want to sell what they have. But if one property gets approved for the development of a McMansion, there will be a snowball effect. When you let one go, the rest will follow. That’s how development usually works.

The Twenty have been fighting specifically [against residential development] in Naples, which is the gem of the Gaviota Coast. It’s north of Goleta, probably about ten minutes. It’s an open piece of land that overlooks a pristine coastline without much development to the north or south. There’s also good surf there, and surfers have been accessing the land for a long time. Protecting the rights of the people who use the coast is key in this campaign.

Are there other impending development projects?
Naples is the biggest one that’s still up in the air. No one really knows what’s going to happen with it. Depending on which way it goes, it will influence the rest of the coast. There are some other slightly smaller projects being proposed that will also have a very large effect.

Why is protecting the Gaviota Coast important?
On a personal level, part of the reason I live in Santa Barbara is because I have access to that stretch of land. I can get there by hiking or by boat, and in a very short amount of time I get to feel like I’m on my own adventure in Fiji or New Zealand. A lot of people have called the Gaviota Coast the lungs of Santa Barbara County. It helps filter and purify the air, and even with Santa Barbara being as populated as it is, we do seem to have pretty good air quality here. Knowing that the open space is close by and I’m not stuck inside a grid is really important.

Is there easy public access to the coastline?
Yes, all it really takes is parking your car nearby and getting out and walking around. Some environmental groups, including Surfrider and the Coastal Fund of University of California at Santa Barbara, are trying to establish hiking trails up and down the Gaviota Coast. But a lot of property owners don’t want that type of access granted, which is another tricky battle.

What do you hope the film will accomplish?
The film is going to be experiential, trying to connect people with the landscape and the importance of keeping open space versus having mankind’s reflection on everything we see. When I’m driving up the 101 Freeway and I’m going through Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Goleta, there’s something that changes the second I get past Goleta, where the urban threshold lies. All of a sudden it turns into open landscape, my blood pressure goes down, I sit back a little deeper in my seat, I take deeper breaths – just driving, not even hiking. Immediately, my brain says, you made it, you’re here.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Photo by Shutterstock

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  • Larry

    This is an enjoyable short and I hope it can get the attention Surfrider needs to succeed. I’ve explored many miles of the Santa Barbara county coast and the Gaviota area is well worth preserving from development. Unfortunately, the wealthy and influential have traditionally bought up SoCal to keep for themselves and this is just another example. To a degree I can empathize with them – why should anyone be told what they can and can’t do with their land, oceanfront or not? There are other undeveloped smaller coastal areas if you know where to go.

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