A little more than 15 years ago, President Bill Clinton declared 250,000 acres in the southeast corner of San Luis Obispo County as the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Since that time, the monument has become a showcase for biological and geological diversity and research, yet it is still one of the state’s hidden treasures, located in a little-visited corner of the state and county. In celebration of its 15th anniversary, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, on Wednesday attended a tour of the monument that attracted more than 20 nature lovers and Carrizo Plain enthusiasts.
“This is what the Carrizo Plain can do,” she said. “It brought us all together. I know that it will forever be remembered and cherished, which is the best legacy of all.”
The Carrizo Plain contains a remarkable number of biological, geological, historic and cultural resources, said Johna Hurl, monument manager. The federal Bureau of Land Management manages the monument.
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A unique habitat
The plain stretches 50 miles from north to south and is bordered on the east by the Temblor Mountains and on the west by the Caliente Mountains. It is one of the state’s hottest and sunniest locations, with summer temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees and rainfall ranging from only 7 to 10 inches a year.
The valley is a unique combination of alkali flats and grasslands, which are some of the few remnants of prehistoric grasslands that once covered the San Joaquin Valley before it was converted to farmland.
Here is a partial list of the resources found in the monument:
▪ 13 federally listed rare and endangered plants and animals, including the San Joaquin kit fox and giant kangaroo rat.
▪ Important populations of tule elk and pronghorn antelope.
▪ Soda Lake, a nearly 5-square-mile alkali lake that is bright white throughout much of the year when it is dry.
▪ Caliente Mountain, San Luis Obispo County’s highest peak at 5,106 feet.
▪ Wallace Creek, the most visible section of the San Andreas Fault.
▪ Painted Rock, a horseshoe-shaped sandstone rock formation that is adorned with Native American pictographs and considered one of the more significant examples of Native American rock art in the world.
▪ El Saucito Ranch House, a well-preserved pioneer homestead dating to the 1870s.
▪ Some of the state’s most spectacular wildflower displays in the springtime, including poppies and lupine.
Because the monument is home to such a remarkably diverse set of resources, it is a hive of research activity and habitat restoration, Hurl said. Much of that centers on its many rare and endangered species and how they have adapted to living in such a hot, dry and inhospitable environment. The monument is also experimenting with the limited use of cattle grazing for habitat enhancement and control of invasive species.
“It’s never boring out here,” Hurl said. “People ask me, ‘What do you do out there?’ I say, ‘You’d be surprised.’ ”
The monument has also been used to study earthquakes. In recent years, seismology researchers have studied Wallace Creek to better understand earthquake patterns along the powerful San Andreas Fault, even going so far as to dig trenches into the fault to study its movement.
Wallace Creek flows out of the Temblor Range and takes a 420-foot dogleg to the right when it reaches the fault. That’s how far a series of quakes has moved the fault over the past 3,800 years.
Expanding the monument
Another active component of conservation within the monument is land acquisition. The monument has many parcels of private land known as inholdings. Buying those parcels and adding them to the monument is one of the main activities of the Carrizo Plain Conservancy, a private conservancy group.
For example, the conservancy recently purchased a 42-acre lot near the northeast corner of the monument.
Purchasing these inholdings allows the monument to be consistently managed.
A proposal also has been made to increase the size of the monument. During Wednesday’s tour, Neil Havlik, president of the Carrizo Plain Conservancy, presented a letter to Capps for President Barack Obama, asking him to add 16,000 acres of public land along the east side of the Temblor Range to the monument.
The land would be a natural addition to the monument because it contains a variety of valuable natural habitats including oak woodlands and native scrubland, Havlik said. The addition would increase the size of the monument by 6 percent.
Obama has the authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create new national monuments or add to existing ones without authorization by Congress.
Capps said she would pass the letter on to Obama, adding that it doesn’t hurt to ask.
“Everyone is so focused on the coast, we sometimes forget about the inland and ecologically valuable places like the Carrizo Plain,” she said.
A Capps legacy
Havlik also used the tour as an opportunity to formally thank Capps for her efforts to conserve the monument.
He presented her with two watercolor paintings by local artists depicting various scenes from the Carrizo Plain.
Capps, who is retiring at the end of the year after 18 years in Congress, has spent her entire legislative career fighting for greater protection of the Carrizo Plain, Havlik said.
Her late husband, Rep. Walter Capps, introduced a bipartisan bill in 1997 called the Carrizo Plain National Conservation Area Act. He died soon after and was replaced by Lois.
Congresswoman Capps reintroduced the bill in 1998 and 1999, but neither attempt passed. It took President Clinton to create the Carrizo Plain National Monument in 2001 during the waning days of his administration.
Her efforts to protect the Carrizo Plain have not ended there.
In 2014 and 2015, she introduced the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, which would designate areas of the monument as wilderness, one of the federal government’s most protective land-management designations.
The bill has received a hearing in the U.S. Senate but not in the House. Capps remains optimistic that it will eventually pass.
“It’s going to happen,” she said. “The Carrizo Plain is protected, but we want to make sure that nothing can ever happen to it.”
Capps said her Wednesday visit to the monument will likely be her last.