Five years after escrow closed Feb. 18, 2005, on the Hearst Ranch Conservation Plan, few visitors and area residents know much about the $95 million ranchland-protection agreement, and those who do say hasn’t made a big impact on their lives, scenic views or vacation plans. That was the idea: the landscape is to remain essentially the same forever.
There are changes, of course—those hiking along 13 miles of oceanfront bluffs and meadows don’t have to climb over barbed-wire fences and trespass on private property any more, because the 949 acres now belongs to State Parks, courtesy of a gift from the Hearst family.
The parks agency left fences in place, but created five openings so people could go in and out more easily.
“Now people can legally do what they’d been doing for years anyway,” Nick Franco, superintendent of the parks district that includes Hearst San Simeon State Park and borders the Hearst Ranch, said with a grin.
Environmentalists had battled Hearst Corp for more than three decades over major plans to develop some of the 82,000-acre ranch, including a major resort, golf course and homes at San Simeon Point, Pico Creek and other areas.
Instead, the subsequent conservation deal, which took about six years to finalize, provided permanent public access to the coastline, and about 18 contiguous miles of the California Coastal Trail can be created west of Highway 1.
There’s also a strict conser vation easement over the rest of the working ranch across Highway 1 from State Parks’ coastal strip. (Conservation easements are binding, voluntary agreements that restrict land uses to agriculture and open space.)
In its easement, Hearst Corp. also retained rights to put a 100-room inn at San Simeon Bay and no more than 27 homes in the ranch’s hills. Some employee housing could be built east of Highway 1, behind San Simeon’s motels and condominiums.
Corporation officials say they don’t expect to move forward with those plans any time soon.
“The economic downturn put that process on hold” for now, said Stephen Hearst, Hearst Corp. vice president who conceived and achieved the conservation project.
The inn likely would be built as a partnership, because the corporation “isn’t in the hotel business,” he said. “But it’s not a point of conversation right now.”
And construction on the first few estate homes would likely be for joint family and corporate use, rather than as “homes for specific Hearsts.”
Those who opposed paying $95 million in public funds to protect lots of scenic ranchland that people can see but not walk on say such vague statements continue to make them antsy.
So, the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club and LandWatch San Luis Obispo County, appealed Hearst’s application to adjust lot lines between four of the oceanfront parcels the corporation still owns. The issue has yet to go before the California Coastal Commission.
Andrew Christie, coordinator of the Santa Lucia Chapter, said the Old San Simeon Village development would be “inconsistent with the county’s Local Coastal Plan (LCP).” And because “the easement is a private contract, unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how things are going” on the ranch itself.
Peter Douglas, Coastal Commission’s executive director, agreed. “I have no idea whether the Hearst Conservation is working or not. There is no transparency here.” He continues to be concerned about some aspects of the final deal, “but we’ll deal with some of these when the Hearst Corp. and/or the county comes forward for amendment to the county’s LCP to accommodate the various residential compounds or to develop the resort at San Simeon.”
Under easement terms, representatives of California Rangeland Trust monitor the ranch twice a year. The California Wildlife Conservation Board reviews the audit reports, and Hearst Ranch gets a copy. Participants say the easement-compliance process is going well.
John Donnelly, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Board, said things are “going great … I’m glad we did the project, and I stand behind it.”
Nita Vail, Rangeland Trust’s executive director, said Hearst Ranch is meeting easement terms and maintaining the ranch “in an exemplary manner.”
She said every spring, teams of scientists and ranchers check approximately 80 different sites at various springs and other areas, measuring residual dry matter, and checking stock ponds and streams. In the fall, team members also photograph current conditions, wildlife, plant communities, road maintenance and changes in rangeland features and infrastructure.
Every five years, audits are more stringent.
In spring, the team notes any changes in the forage areas. In fall, scientists track the health of the rangeland and habitat. They monitor stream conditions, erosion and deposits, riparian vegetation and water quality. Aerial surveys look for alterations in groups of plants, erosion, fire or infrastructure changes.
Several Hearst employees and consultants accompany the team on each inspection.
“We’ve passed with flying colors,” Hearst said in December.
That doesn’t surprise Shirley Bianchi, Hearst Ranch neighbor, former county supervisor and a previous Hearst-development critic who became a staunch supporter of the conservation plan.
“Am I happy with the results?” she asked. “You better believe it. That massive development won’t happen now, so biodiversity on the ranch will continue. The little red-legged frogs will be just as happy in their ponds in 100 years as they are now.
“We never know when some previously unknown plant or little animal will give us the chemical or the key to cure some horrific disease. To me, that makes the Hearst deal the poster child for conserving agricultural land, preserving the beauty of the ranch and the extraordinary biodiversity. I don’t care if the public could walk on the ranch or not.”
If people aren’t talking or thinking about the conservation project itself, they certainly enjoy the results, especially hiking the coastline and seeing the undeveloped ranchland and the sea.
Parks Superintendent Franco said, “They love the wilderness feel of it, that there’s no development on this pristine coastline. They can be out in this area and feel alone on the coast. That’s a pretty unique thing in California.”
Consequently, “most people don’t want us to do anything to the land,” he said of advice he gleaned from the public during a series of workshops after the conservation deal was consummated. “So, we preserved what is…which is what Parks is supposed to do.”