In November 2012, after a steel fence featuring six strands of barbed wire was installed around 3-1/2 miles of the easement The Nature Conservancy purchased from the Ralph Covell property in 2000, the neighbors were outraged and citizens who had enjoyed piney sojourns through the forest trails for many years felt betrayed.
Moreover, the $4 million used by The Nature Conservancy to purchase the 800-acre easement (to protect the Monterey Pines) was public tax money from the “Transportation Enhancement Act” (TEA). Hence, red flags — and pointed questions — have been raised vis-à-vis using transportation funds to fence hikers out of a pristine forest that has been used for a significant length of time.
The TEA funds are intended for a dozen purposes, including “scenic easements” (i.e., conservation) and for “pedestrians and bicycles.” To locals, the word “pedestrians” suggests that citizens should be included in the use of these monies.
Those questioning the fence and the use of a taxpayer-funded transportation grant to prevent access to the long-used trails include John Colgan, Amy and Adrian Taron, Gary Auth, and others involved with “Neighbors of Open Space” (NOS) – who are promoting a petition (http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/regain-access-to-cambria-trails.html).
“Why six strands of barbed wire,” Colgan asks. “Even to keep cattle in you use five strands. And why wrap the top rail of every gate with barbed wire?”
The Nature Conversancy easement states, “…wildlife should be able to roam free,” Amy Taron explained. “But a wildlife friendly fence would be one in which the top and bottom wires are not barbed, so smaller animals can go under it and larger animals can jump over it without getting hooked.”
“No rancher wants people tramping around on his property,” Colgan remarked. “But I’ve never seen anyone wrap barbed wire around the top of their gates before. That’s pretty hostile.”
That having been said, a close reading of the deed of easement appears to show that the fence is a done deal, and protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, “… the right to enjoin any activity on the Property or other use of the Property which, in the judgment of the Grantee (TNC), exercising its reasonable discretion, is inconsistent with the Easement”; in short, the Nature Conservancy, not only the property owner, has the right to prohibit any activity it thinks could endanger the property.
The Nature Conservancy
Mike Conner’s title is Senior Project Director for The Nature Conservancy, reportedly the wealthiest conservation organization in the world. When asked (during a speakerphone interview Jan. 31) if TNC specifically contracted to use six strands of barbed wire and to wrap barbed wire around the tops of the gates, Conner paused for a few moments.
“The easement called for a chain-link fence but we saw a barbed wire fence as more environmentally friendly than a chain-link fence,” he said.
Did he know there would be six strands, which appears to make it difficult if not impossible for animals like coyotes, fawns, skunks and other critters to get through the barbs?
“I wouldn’t be the right person to speak to that part of the management plan,” he said. “The primary objective of the fence is protection of the forest. One of the potential threats to the forest is actually people through invasive introduction and the potential for starting a fire.”
He said he “regrets” that people who have used the trails are now fenced out, but added, “It is private property … and we don’t have the right to provide public access.”
On the subject of fires, Conner was informed that on Wednesday, Jan. 30, there were several unattended fires smoldering on the TNC easement — fires that Cal Fire had ignited to burn up piles of trimmings left by recent fire break work. He had no comment.
The Leimert neighbors
As to the Leimert neighbors whose homes are a few feet from the shiny new fence, Amy Taron was asked about the psychological impact after using the forest trails for 15 years. “I’ve been crying every day about it. It makes me sick,” Amy explained.
Pointing to the barbed wire wrapped around the top of a steel gate, Amy added, “It looks like a gulag now, doesn’t it? This is a very unfriendly fence.”
On Nov. 6, 2012, Amy and husband Adrian walked a trail while the fence was being installed. Their presence was reported to the sheriff’s office and shortly a deputy arrived and the Tarons were told the next time they were on TNC property the fine would be $175.
Greenspace Executive Director Rick Hawley said, “It’s a mean-spirited fence. Islands of wildlife can get trapped and they end up with a narrow gene pool and blink out over time.”
John Colgan was involved in the development of Cambria’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) master plan that was in place as of 1993. “We were planning to link the trail system through the Cambria Ranch with the back of San Simeon State Park. We were moving forward,” Colgan said.
“The Nature Conservancy came to town. They did not ask us if we had a community open space plan or if they would be impacting our master plan,” Colgan emphasized. “They took the transportation money to lock up the forested aspect of this.”
No more than a million dollars of those funds can be used for scenic easement, according to Colgan’s reading of the TEA guidelines. Hence, he and his group assert that $3 million of those funds have been used improperly.
“We want it opened back up. We want our public money used for what it was intended,” he said. He added that “prescriptive easement” may be another angle to get the trails opened up.
Prescriptive easement means if the public has used a trail on private property for five years or more — and the trails on the Covell land have reportedly been used for 60 years — then the prescriptive easement could keep those trails open.
The NOS group is scheduled to meet with Nature Conservancy representatives in Cambria today, Feb. 14; North Coast Supervisor Bruce Gibson is also expected to attend.
Jude Basile is a Leimert neighbor whose property line is a few feet from the barbed wire fence. “Ralph Covell seems to be a reasonable person,” said Basile, whose family has used the trails for years. “I’m hopeful something can be worked out so the property will still be accessible to the public.”
Ralph Covell was not available for an interview on the record.
Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolphs monthly column is special to The Cambrian. Email him at email@example.com.