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Carrizo or Carrisa? Either way, the national monument is spellbinding

Catch the ‘fleeting beauty’ of the Carrizo Plain wildflowers

The wildflowers are in bloom in San Luis Obispo County - especially along Highway 58 near the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The especially wet winter has led to an explosion of wildflowers along the Central Coast. The 2017 season is expected to
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The wildflowers are in bloom in San Luis Obispo County - especially along Highway 58 near the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The especially wet winter has led to an explosion of wildflowers along the Central Coast. The 2017 season is expected to

A place is truly isolated when nobody can agree on the spelling.

Today, Carrisa Plains Elementary School sits just north of the Carrizo Plain National Monument on the eastern edge of San Luis Obispo County.

As Mark Hall-Patton noted in a Sept. 26, 1991, column, it was sometimes spelled “Carisa” as well.

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Named for Carrizo bunch grass widely used by the Chumash, the valley is home to Painted Rock, a significant sacred site to the Chumash and Yokuts.

Grain farmers, sheep and cattle ranchers scratch for profit in the dirt but with sparse rainfall, even in the best years, it’s a hard way of life.

Soda Lake traps rainfall in a briny basin between the Temblor Range and the Caliente Mountains.

The lake was once mined for soda.

Johna Hurl, Carrizo Plain National Monument manager, talks about the monument's unique features during a tour to commemorate its 15th anniversary Wednesday, June 1, 2016.

It was also a World War II gunnery range. A man was killed there in 1945, grading a road when a strafing airplane mistook his equipment for a target.

Another feature is the San Andreas Fault. The geologic record tells us the fault unlocks violently about every 150 years or so.

In 1857, a magnitude 8 rupture took about 2  1/2 minutes to shred south 255 miles from Parkfield to San Bernardino. The quake was named for Fort Tejon, one of the few inhabited places on the fault line at the time.

If you are doing the math, 2017 - 1857 = 160.

Carrizo is a local and national treasure. It contains remnants of the once vast San Joaquin grasslands, significant Native American cultural sites like the Chumash Painted Rock, and the most visible portion of the San Andreas Fault.

U.S. Rep. Lois Capps

North of today’s monument, a real estate developer tried to sell California Valley as a paradise. Recently, enterprising farmers have tried to buy lots and grow pot.

Throughout it all, the land has endured, and when the rain falls just right, as it did this year, blooms riot in wild profusion.

In one of his last acts in office, President Bill Clinton named 204,107 acres of federal land Carrizo Plain National Monument in January 2001.

“Carrizo is a local and national treasure, “ U.S. Rep. Lois Capps said. “It contains remnants of the once vast San Joaquin grasslands, significant Native American cultural sites like the Chumash Painted Rock, and the most visible portion of the San Andreas Fault.”

Monument status raises the visibility of a place. Social media buzzed as thousands visited the spectacular Carrizo wildflower display this year.

Santa Margarita has been celebrating a Wildflower Festival since 2011, and the revenue leading industry in the county is travel/tourism.

President Donald Trump has announced the regressive step of reviewing the previous three president’s National Monument designations which could affect both Carrizo Plain and Piedras Blancas Light Station.

David Sneed wrote this story March 30, 1999, as momentum began to build for monument status:


The Carrizo Plain worked its magic on Bruce Babbitt on Monday

The nation’s secretary of the Interior visited the rolling grasslands of eastern San Luis Obispo County, with its abundance of endangered species and haunting American Indian sites.

He came away convinced that the area deserves recognition as a National Conservation Area.

“I’ve come, I’ve seen, and I’ve succumbed to the spell of the valley, “ he said.

In the next several days, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, plans to submit legislation to Congress that would create the nation’s ninth — and the state’s third — National Conservation Area at the Carrizo Plain.

This designation would not change how the area is managed, but it would make more money available for scientific research and management projects.

Babbitt said he wanted to see the area for himself and report back to President Clinton.

1999 03-29 Carrizo Plain Babbitt13242_1
Johana Hurl, Carrizo manager with the Bureau of Land Management, leads a sunrise tour of Painted Rock on the Carrizo Plain. The rock is sacred ground to the Chumash tribe. Tours of the rock this time of year by arrangement and escort avoid disturbing nesting birds including a Golden Eagle. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is in plaid next to Congresswoman Lois Capps in March 1999. David Middlecamp

He said he was optimistic that the bill would be enacted, although a similar bill introduced during the last session of Congress by Capps languished in committee until it died.

“I think our chances are much improved,” Babbitt said.

“We are going to mount a sustained effort.”

The Carrizo Plain is 250,000 acres of mostly Bureau of Land Management land that contains the last largest remaining example of undeveloped San Joaquin Valley grass- and shrublands.

It is home to herds of tule elk and pronghorn antelope as well as the California condor.

Babbitt and a host of high-ranking state resource managers arrived in the Carrizo Plain on Sunday evening and watched the sun set over the Caliente Mountains.

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Armed with spotlights, the group then went looking for San Joaquin kit foxes, one of the 13 federally listed endangered species found in the valley.

They spent the night in a BLM bunkhouse.

More spectacular wildlife viewing awaited Babbitt and his entourage Monday morning when they visited Painted Rock, one of the most significant examples of American Indian rock art in the state.

The group approached the 55-foot-tall rock monolith in awed silence. A cleft in the rock creates a grotto, the walls of which are covered with Chumash and Yokuts Indian rock paintings.

An owl flapped away as the group entered the grotto. As dozens of cliff swallows and white-throated swifts wheeled and chattered overhead, BLM Carrizo manager Johna Hurl explained that the abstract and stylized pictographs of bears and other animals are between 200 and 2,000 years old.

1999 03-29 Carrizo Plain Babbitt13243_1
Carrisa Plains Elementary School students wave flags at the ceremony held at the Goodwin Education Center March 1999. David Middlecamp

They were likely painted by shamans for religious ceremonies.

Fred Collins of the San Luis Obispo County Chumash Council said Painted Rock is one of three sacred sites in the county.

The Chumash consider Avila Beach to be the symbolic head of the tribe, Santa Margarita Ranch its heart and Painted Rock its womb.

Preserving American Indian sites such as Painted Rock is important to the Chumash, because the sites help maintain a spiritual connection to their ancestors. National Conservation Area status would help focus public attention on respecting such sites, Collins said.

As the group walked back down the hill, a golden eagle lifted into the sky. A pair of eagles have built a nest on a ledge at the back of the rock.

“I can’t believe there’s a place like this left in California,” Babbitt said.

After visiting Painted Rock, Babbitt held a public meeting at the Carrizo Plain visitor center.

I can’t believe there’s a place like this left in California.

Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt

His efforts to establish a National Conservation Area got a helping hand when the entire student body of the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Carrisa Plain School showed up clutching small American flags. With Babbitt acting as cheerleader, the children waved their flags in the air and shouted in unison “Carrizo Plain National Conservation Area.”

He also made the schoolchildren promise that they would write a letter to President Clinton, with every child’s signature on it, urging him to support the NCA designation.

Congresswoman Capps told the crowd that the Carrizo Plain will serve as a new model for land management in the nation.

State and federal agencies, ranchers, environmentalists and Native Americans have all cooperated to manage the valley as a natural area.

“This is truly a national treasure,” Capps said.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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