By Jesse Phelps
Soon it may be possible for Ojai
residents and nature lovers to stop and smell the flowers on
a spectacular piece of land off Highway 150, near Lake Casitas.
That's because the Conservation Endowment Fund, a local organization
dedicated to bringing people together with nature, has donated
an 80-acre parcel to the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens.
"This is the largest donation of land in the county to be
preserved as open space with no strings attached," said
John Taft, who originally donated the land to the CEF, whose
board he sits on, in 1991.
The garden, which features a diverse array of plant life, has
two distinct sections of foreign flora, one from South Africa
and one from Australia. It also encompasses a number of native
species - oak trees are prominent, as well as more rare varietals
- and a pavilion facility, which can be used for educational
Chris Woods, vice president for horticulture at the Botanic Gardens,
has been speding quite a bit of time conducting an inventory
of the plant life at the CEF property and said that the parcel
represents an important addition for the Santa Barbara institution.
"This region of California is one of five in the world that
have a Mediterranean climate and flora," said Woods. The
other four are Western Australia, South Africa, the Mediterranean
Basin (Europe) and parts of Chile.
"The plants from these five regions are deeply connected
taxonomically and genetically," Woods said. "And, of
course, they're adapted to the climate here. As ornamental flora,
they're appropriate to this region."
Woods has been active in assessing plants around the world and
their economic, environmental and ornamental values.
"What makes (the CEF garden) special to me is that, first
of all, it's really beautiful," said Woods. "Secondly,
as a plantsman, it's a bit like Noah's Ark; it has one of the
best collections of proteas from South Africa in the world. And
it has an extraordinarily diverse collection of Western Australian
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, located in Mission Canyon,
is dedicated to preserving native California species. It has
never before acquired another garden, Woods said, and the variety
of non-native plants make the gift an expansion in more ways
than one. But, said Woods, the plants should integrate nicely,
not to mention that the CEF gardens support a number of rare
native species as well.
"We will be one institution with two sites," he said.
"There are 50 acres of California flora (at the CEF garden)
and most of that will remain. There are rare and endangered California
plants. So, we're looking at the protection of endangered plants
as well as the preservation of open space."
But before anyone gets to enjoy the area, the issue of access
must be solved. Two years ago, a conditional use permit was revoked,
stopping the use of the land by citizens who came as part of
a non-profit, public-supported charity created for environmental
education called the International Center for Earth Concerns.
Taft said that, for a time, many groups used the land for educational
purposes, including Boy Scouts, school groups and organizations
such as the Sierra Club. "It was extremely popular with
teachers," said Taft. "Over 15,000 kids came from all
over the county."
But access to the property is gained by an easement through a
neighboring property. The neighbor, Earl Holder, was upset by
the traffic caused by visiting groups. The county determined
that violations - visitors not coming for educational purposes
- warranted the loss of the conditional use permit and thus the
property was closed to the public.
That, said Taft, is fine with him. In the end, he said, he's
"delighted" to have lost the conditional use permit
because his responsibility for maintenance is reduced and the
organization is now free to donate to the botanic garden. "Without
losing (the CUP), we would never have voted to make the gift
to Santa Barbara," said Taft.
Now, he asserted, the donation should enable visitors to once
again enjoy the scenery, at least once the courts have decided
on the matter. "The right of way issue will have to be solved
by a judge, not by Earl Holder," Taft said. "It's going
to go to court. We feel it should be used by the public."
Published reports said that a lawyer for Holder planned on watching
the situation closely, to make sure that any plans will include
alternative access. Any new road would necessarily travel through
some combination of National Forest land, the Rancho Matilija
housing development and a parcelowned by the Ojai Valley Land
Conservancy - all remote possibilities at best.
Al Harris of the Forest Service said that, in the past, roads
have built through the forest when the use was appropriate. However,
in this particular case, he said, it isn't likely because the
terrain is so steep. In addition, "We haven't heard anything
about this from anyone yet," he said.
Jim Engel at the Land Conservancy said he planned to send a letter
to Taft notifying him that no such road would be built on conservancy
But both Engel and Taft said they desire to see the garden become
a destination for hikers. Taft said he has a "great desire
to connect land with the conservancy." Those hiking the
trail through Willis Canyon could "come by appointment to
use the land," he said.
"The long term goal of the Taft family," he said, "Would
be to have some harmonious use between the Land Conservancy's
new acquisition and the property here."
Ultimately, said Taft, he looks forward to the day when the public
can enjoy a connection with nature on the land, a day when the
access problems are a thing of the past.
"Holder will go away," said Taft, "And I'll go
away. But the garden, now that it's been left to the people in
Santa Barbara, will never go away."
The Ojai Valley News
to the news