Group hopes to restore access to Los Padres forest from Huasna

dsneed@thetribunenews.comMarch 4, 2013 

With its rolling oak-dabbled hills, the eastern end of the Huasna Valley is one of San Luis Obispo County’s most remote and beautiful areas.

Huasna Road through the valley is one of the few ways to reach large areas of Los Padres National Forest, including Stony Creek, Avenales Observation Point and southern parts of the Garcia Wilderness. However, those parts of the forest are now nearly inaccessible to the public because a ranch that owns several parcels within the forest has blocked off the road.

The group Los Padres Forest Watch, which advocates for public lands, is working with the UCLA Environmental Law Clinic to restore public access by establishing a prescriptive-rights easement on the road, a legal process that establishes public access on private property based on long-standing use.

“Huasna Road is the only way you can really access this part of the national forest,” said Jeff Kuyper, the group’s executive director. “Already, roads and trails are falling to disrepair from lack of use. They could be lost altogether soon.”

The group is hoping to negotiate a voluntary easement with the ranch owners, but is willing to go to court, if necessary. Kuyper is looking for as many people as possible who would be willing to tell how they historically used the road to access the forest before it was closed off.

But there’s a catch. According to state law, only use that predates 1972 can be used to establish prescriptive rights.

“Time is not on our side,” said Grace Hwang, a second-year UCLA law student who is working on the case.

Long history

Public access to the forest via Huasna Road has a long and complicated history going back decades. The county maintains a stretch of road some 14 miles into the area from the historic Huasna town site.

Much of the land along that road is the property of the 47,000-acre Huasna Ranch, which is owned by Long Beach-based Farmers and Merchants Bank and operated by the Messer Land and Development Co.

According to a history compiled by Los Padres Forest Watch, the road dates to the late 1800s and gates began appearing on it as early as the 1940s. The road was taken into the county system in 1965.

In 1980, the ranch owners unsuccessfully asked that the county abandon the road and close it to public access. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service announced that vehicle access to Stony Creek Campground was closed to motorized traffic but remained open to non-motorized traffic.

All public access was eliminated on May 5, 1998. The first of several gates blocking public access is located about a mile before Stony Creek Campground on the edge of a small parcel the ranch owns within the forest, called an inholding, near the turnoff to the Avenales Observation Point, which served as a World War II civilian defense post.

Voicemail and e-mail requests to Andrew Miller, spokesman for Farmers and Merchants Bank, asking for comment were not answered. However, Andrew Madsen, spokesman for Los Padres forest, said the main reason for the gates is to reduce trespassing on ranch property.

“It’s unintentional in some cases,” he said. “In other cases you have people going out there because it has become known as a party place by younger people who leave trash and beer bottles.

“Due to these issues, the ranch has been pretty serious about keeping the public off its land. It’s a tricky situation up there. We want to maximize public access to the forest but respect the rights of property owners.”

Key entry to forest

Kuyper said it is important to restore public access because Huasna Road is the only access to the forest between Hi Mountain Road and Santa Barbara County.

Stony Creek is the site of Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps camp and contains many Native American rock art sites that need monitoring, and the whole area features springs, meadows, blue oak woodlands and the headwaters to the Huasna River.

Without Huasna Road, the only way to access the area is to hike in from Hi Mountain Road or from Avenales Ranch across distances of five to 10 miles.

Access to Avenales Ranch, east of Pozo, requires the permission of the Sinton family. The Sintons allow groups, such as equestrians and the Sierra Club, to cross their property to reach the national forest if they have a responsible hike leader, ranch manager Steve Sinton said.

One county resident who would like to see access to the area restored is Mike Stiles of Los Osos. He grew up in Nipomo and frequently visited Stony Creek to monitor rock art sites as part of the Forest Service’s Partners in Preservation program.

When the road was closed to vehicles, he continued to access the area by hiking in. Last year, he hiked into the area, but as he returned to his car, Stiles was confronted by a ranch employee who threatened to report him to the Sheriff’s Office as a trespasser, he said.

“It’s a real pain,” Stiles said. “I’ve gone backpacking in that area for many years. There’s quite an extensive trail system back there, so it’s really a shame that they’ve cut off access.”

In order to restore access, Los Padres Forest Watch would have to find enough witnesses to convince a judge that the public consistently used the road against the landowner’s wishes for a period of at least five years prior to 1972.

Anyone interested in helping in this effort may contact Los Padres Forest Watch by email at info@LPFW.org, by phone at 617-4610, ext. 1, or by mail at Forest Watch, Attn: Huasna Access, P.O. Box 831, Santa Barbara, CA 93102.

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