When the shiny new six-strand barbed wire fence – paid for by the Nature Conservancy – went up around 3-1/2 miles of the Covell Ranch on the northeast side of Cambria in November, along with the umbrage taken by neighbors there were concerns raised about how wildlife would navigate the fence and there were stern objections to assertions by the conservancy that trail users would cause a fire.
The immediate response from those who had walked the trails for years was that, notwithstanding the conservancy’s image as an influential conservation corporation, it had installed a mean-spirited blockade designed to prevent access to all — including wildlife.
Last Wednesday, May 29, a dead doe was discovered lying near the fence by a Covell property neighbor, suggesting that the barbed wire contributed to the deer’s demise.
On Friday, May 31, North Coast Supervisor Bruce Gibson took a few moments away from selling avocados — helping his parents, Jane and Jack Gibson, at their Cambria Farmers Market fruit booth — to discuss the fence and related issues.
Gibson said, “It was unfortunate that (the deer died), but that incident with the doe is really separate from the question of allowing people to have access to property.”
Asked if he views six strands of barbed wire as uncaring or callous, Gibson said “I really don’t have an opinion on that. At some level you have to respect people’s property rights and you’d like to think that Mr. Covell would do it in a way that’s environmentally sensitive.
“I’m more focused on working with the neighbors, the Nature Conservancy and Ralph (Covell) to see what we can do about public access.”
Has the supervisor been in contact with Nature Conservancy Senior Project Director Mike Conner? “We’re talking. We’re trying to work on what kind of thing we can set up that will get the access back. It is private property and it’s going to have to be negotiated,” Gibson explained.
“The nature of the easement did not involve any public access. Whether it should or not is a whole different question,” Gibson remarked. “We’re trying to work cooperatively to figure out how we can get people back on those trails. It’s going to take a little bit of time.”
After walking the Covell property trails recently with Jude Basile, whose Leimert home abuts Covell’s property, Gibson described it as “beautiful — a gorgeous piece of Monterey pine forest, which is the reason that it has a conservation easement on it. I totally understand people’s interest in those trails. I absolutely empathize with those who want the trails open.”
Can a deal get done? “I hope so. I hope so,” said Gibson. “It’s early in the discussion, but you have to approach those (discussions) at the pace that they are going to be productive.”
In a February interview with Conner, the conservancy spokesperson told this reporter that one of the “primary objectives” of the barbed wire fence was to avoid “potential threats to the forest.” Among those perceived threats, he claimed, is when people — through “invasive introduction” (i.e., walking the trails) — bring with them “the potential for starting a fire.”
But according to neighbors whose back yards are a short few feet from the Covell property, there is now a much bigger fire hazard than before because Cal Fire has not completed the work it started.
That situation was created when Cal Fire created piles of downed trees and brush (from the shaded fuel break it cut along the Covell property line in 2012) but has not as yet burned all of those tinder-dry piles, as neighbors say Cal Fire promised they would.
Now the scotch broom has re-seeded and the grasses are at least knee high in many areas, adding fuel to neighbors’ back yards, according to sources that preferred not to be quoted.
Given that the fence prevents neighbors from removing the fire hazards that Cal Fire left, residents interviewed feel threatened. Cal Fire spokesperson Alan Peters said the last burning was in March. “Due to the dry weather we weren't able to complete our burning,” Peters said. “Those piles are no more of a threat than the fuel break was before we did any treatment.”