The public was disappointed when the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County announced recently that the opening of the spectacular 900-acre Pismo Preserve had been delayed from later this year to 2018.
Hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians had been looking forward to exploring 11 miles of newly built trails and enjoying panoramic ocean views from the preserve, which the conservancy bought in 2014 with $12 million in public and private donations.
However, the discovery of numerous archaeological sites on the property and the need to install public safety improvements has caused the Land Conservancy to delay the opening of the park for as long as two years.
On a tour of the preserve last week, conservancy Executive Director Kaila Dettman said the most significant reason for the delay is the fact that archaeological surveys of the area where the preserve’s two parking lots will be off Mattie Road revealed the presence of Chumash cultural sites.
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Dettman said she is legally prohibited from revealing too much detail about the number and type of cultural resources, but she confirmed that there are numerous sites that will have to be excavated and inventoried, a process that takes months to complete. The layout of the parking lots may have to be altered somewhat to avoid or protect those sites.
“This really doesn’t come as such a big surprise,” Dettman said. “The Chumash used these coastal terraces between Avila Beach and Oceano for thousands and thousands of years.”
The Chumash did not respond to a request for comment on the preserve’s cultural resources.
“This is a very sensitive issue with the Chumash people,” said Barry Price, the preserve’s principal archaeologist with Applied Earthworks in San Luis Obispo.
The conservancy and archaeologists will have a constant presence at the site and will take other precautions to prevent looting.
“The Land Conservancy is very concerned about looting, and that’s understandable,” said County Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district includes the Pismo Preserve. “They won’t push this in any direction the Chumash do not want to go.”
The 900-acre Pismo Preserve is in the hills behind Pismo Beach and Shell Beach, and its rolling terrain contains many valuable natural ecosystems including coast live oak woodlands and grasslands.
The Land Conservancy is very concerned about looting, and that’s understandable. They won’t push this in any direction the Chumash do not want to go.
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill
Hill said it was probably a mistake to have announced that the preserve could be opened to the public as early as the end of this year before the conservancy knew exactly how many cultural resources were present and how many amenities, such as benches and trail signs, would be needed to make the preserve safe for public use. This extra work is expected to cost $4.8 million, money the Land Conservancy has not yet raised.
“The Land Conservancy, to their credit, is going about this as sensitively and responsibly as possible,” Hill said. “The preserve is going to open, but we are not going to take any kind of shortcuts on this.”
Dettman said the conservancy was elated by the fact that the community raised the $12 million to purchase the preserve and local regulators fast-tracked granting the necessary coastal development permit from the normal two years to 15 months. This elation caused them to be overly optimistic about when the preserve could be opened completely to the public.
It wasn’t until they got into the preconstruction planning that they realized that fundraising, construction of the final amenities and protecting cultural resources would take longer than expected. Dettman promises to open the preserve as soon as possible.
“We are committed 100 percent to doing this work as culturally sensitive as possible,” Dettman said.
In addition to protecting the cultural resources, the Land Conservancy will install a series of trail signs throughout the preserve that will aid first responders in the event of an emergency. The signs will be marked with grid coordinates that will allow preserve users to tell first responders exactly where they are in the park.
“If you are out on the preserve and your friend trips and breaks his ankle, you will be able to tell Cal Fire exactly where you are located rather than something general, like, on a trail two ridges west of the parking lot,” Dettman said.
Eleven miles of hiking trails have already been built by volunteers, and these trails have some temporary signs. Permanent signs have yet to be purchased and installed.
While the signage work is being completed, the Land Conservancy plans to use a phased approach to increase public access to the preserve. Currently, docent-led hikes are available to conservancy members.
“Personally, I’m enjoying these small group hikes,” said Brooke Langle, who is president of the Land Conservancy’s board of trustees and a preserve docent.
In the spring, the conservancy will begin phasing in open days at the park when the public can sign in, go on unsupervised hikes, mountain bike rides or equestrian rides, and sign out when leaving. This sign-in-and-sign-out approach on a limited number of days is similar to the public access PG&E grants to its scenic Point Buchon property south of Montaña de Oro State Park.
These open days will start at two a month and increase to two a week until the preserve is ready to be opened completely to the public, Dettman said.