Ventana Wilderness Alliance continues to educate and advocate after the devastating Soberanes Fire

By Leonie Sherman

VWA Trail Crew volunteers donate thousands of hours each year improving access in the Big Sur backcountry (Jean LeBlanc).

In 1998, five dudes got together around a campfire and decided to work together to preserve the towering redwoods, twisted oaks, coastal meadows and baked southern slopes of the Ventana Wilderness. They loved to hike and swim and hang out where the mountains meet the sea but were disturbed by the impact of over-grazing, increased use and the Forest Service’s inability to protect these fragile places. Twenty years later the non-profit they spawned manages 23 volunteer rangers, oversees over 300 miles of trail maintenance and instills land ethics in the next generation of wild land protectors. The Ventana Wilderness Alliance doesn’t just advocate and educate, they encourage citizens to ask essential questions about government priorities.

The VWA focuses on 313,000 acres, from Mt. Carmel in the north to the border with San Luis Obispo County in the south. This is the Monterey Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise from the Pacific Ocean to the 5500 ft summit of Cone Peak in less than four miles. The other 1.5 million acres of Los Padres National Forest are fifty miles away, spanning parts of San Luis Obispo, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The Monterey Ranger District draws millions of visitors every year, but the headquarters are in Goleta, over a hundred miles away.

“With a growing population, we have ever increasing visitation and usage but there’s not a corresponding increase in funding for management of recreation,” explains Rich Popchak, VWA’s Communications and Development Director. “The US Forest Service is tasked with protecting the Ventana Wilderness, but they’re  severely underfunded. Without an organization like the VWA, those lands would be in serious trouble.”

Even with an organization like the VWA, those lands are in serious trouble. In July of 2016, somebody abandoned an illegal camp fire in Garrapata State Park, just five miles from the northern border of the National Forest. Years of fire suppression had created a tinderbox of ladder fuels and the blaze scorched 132,000 acres before winter rains snuffed it out.

Desperate efforts to protect property and land made this the most expensive fire fight in US history.  “It cost taxpayers $260 million to suppress the Soberanes fire,” says Mike Splain, VWA Executive Director. “How expensive would it have been to hire a couple of rangers who might have prevented this fire through outreach and education?”

On September 2, as the fire continued to rage, the Forest Supervisor closed the entire Monterey Ranger District to the public. Visitors ignored the “Forest Closed” signs but the underfunded government agency, already stretched thin before the fire, could not enforce the new regulations. Within eight days, VWA’s team of experienced volunteer rangers stepped in to patrol the perimeter and educate the public about the reasons for the closure. “The approach all of our rangers use is to let the resource, not the regulations, dictate our actions,” says Splain.

“Our volunteer rangers are educators. They explain to the public why we behave the way we do in the wilderness,” says retired firefighter and VWA Lead Wilderness Ranger Steve Benoit, who has been hiking the Ventana Wilderness since he was nine. “People are really good about complying once they understand what’s going on.” The last time the Forest Service paid a ranger to patrol was in 2010. So Benoit put on a uniform, agreed to patrol the place and put together the yearlong training and probationary period for VWA’s volunteer rangers, who took responsibility for protecting the forest in the wake of the catastrophic fire.

The Soberanes fire obliterated almost 150 miles of trail in the Ventana Wilderness. After the fire, the VWA didn’t just patrol the area, they surveyed damage and began trail reconstruction. Their experienced volunteer trail crews have put in hundreds of hours trying to reopen access to popular areas. “The trail to Sykes Hot Springs is completely gone,” says Benoit, shaking his head. “Beyond Barlow Flats there’s a cliff that’s collapsed, it’s going to require dynamite to fix. We don’t have the skills or the equipment to do that kind of blasting.” He predicts the trail will be closed for years.

“We’re not just a club that keeps the trails open,” insists Splain, downplaying VWA’s most visible stewardship. “We get people excited about public lands and aware of the threats they face. We bring young people who might not have access otherwise into the back-country.” They sponsor public events, like the Wild and Scenic Film Festival or a popular bio blitz that identified 300 species in a single day and contributed to the range extension of four moth species. They also organize trash clean ups. “And we always have a good time!” says VWA Administrative Assistant Amy Patten, with a laugh.

In 2002, just four years after its inception, the fledgling non-profit worked with Congressman Sam Farr to add over 17,000 acres to the Silver Peak Wilderness, part of the northern section of Los Padres National Forest, just south of the Ventana Wilderness, which was also increased by 37,000 acres. This area contains the southernmost redwoods in the world. VWA’s next move, less than a year later, was to clean up the mess left behind by years of mining and squatting.

“We found all kinds of trash,” says Popchak. “Couches, TVs, lots of glass, remnants of an old house, roofing, old car batteries, water heaters, stoves…..” More than 60 volunteers participated in a series of weekend clean-ups that culminated in the big haul. To protect spawning steelhead and prevent erosion from foot traffic, two volunteers set up a Tyrolean traverse over the creek and sent 10,000 pounds of trash on the cable they rigged.

Despite their remarkable achievements, the VWA still struggles with raising the necessary funds to continue their education and advocacy efforts. But the survival of this small non-profit, the Ventana Wilderness, and public lands in general requires more than money or volunteer hours, it requires a fundamental shift in values.

“The Ventana Wilderness is the place that produced the poet Robinson Jeffers,” says Splain. “Jeffers foresaw a Copernican shift. When Copernicus said the earth wasn’t the center of the universe, he was kicked out of the church and branded a heretic. Our earth is not going to survive if we can’t complete the next Copernican shift to realizing that humans are not the center of the world.”

Ventana Wilderness gets its name from the window (la ventana) at the top center of this ridge (Debi Lorenc).

Winter snowfall is not uncommon on the higher ridges of the Santa Lucias (Betsy MacGowan).

The VWA Youth in Wilderness program connects young people from the region to their public lands (VWA).

The after-effects of the Soberanes Fire will make maintenance of the trail network extremely difficult (Erich Huebner/USFS).

Volunteer wilderness rangers patrol the backcountry (VWA).

USFS fire perimeter map October 6, 2016.