Photos from the Vault

How the Elfin Forest became a park instead of housing

Yolanda Waddell, left, Rosemary Bowker and Les Bowker inspect midden of broken shells left by Indians at the edge of the Elfin Forest in Los Osos in 1986.
Yolanda Waddell, left, Rosemary Bowker and Les Bowker inspect midden of broken shells left by Indians at the edge of the Elfin Forest in Los Osos in 1986.

The Pismo Preserve is the most recent in a long Central Coast tradition of preserving land for public use.

In Los Osos, the El Moro Elfin Forest just celebrated 20 years as a public park. The 90-acre natural area is owned by San Luis Obispo County Parks and California State Parks and features a boardwalk loop with views of Morro Rock.

Telegram-Tribune Editor Jeff Fairbanks wrote in an April 26, 1993, editorial that at one time the property was slated for 132 homes, owned by Los Osos developer Richard Otto.

As the final push for funding was coming together, Fairbanks wrote: “Working to preserve the Elfin Forest are groups as diverse as the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, real estate agents, school kids and politicians from both parties.

“Assemblywoman Andrea Seastrand, a Republican, has taken a leading role in the drive. Her late husband, Eric, was a prime mover in getting the original purchase added to the state park system.”

Fairbanks called it “a place to visit forever if we help buy it ourselves.”

On April 6, 1994, Telegram-Tribune reporter Ann Fairbanks wrote that the local chapter of Small Wilderness Area Preservation, or SWAP, had raised $1.6 million to buy 40 acres of coastal bluffs and wetlands. The northern 52 acres of the property had been bought by the state in 1987 when state funds became available and a lawsuit was settled.

Penny collections and bake sales were combined with donations from the community to raise more than $100,000 locally; the remainder came from county, state and federal sources.

Yolanda Waddell and Rosemary Bowker each served as president of SWAP during the eight-year effort to complete funding.

It was by no means certain when they started.

On Aug. 26, 1986, Telegram-Tribune reporter Linnea Waltz wrote about the launch of the preservation effort:

Elfin Forest sought as a park

Addition of 90 acres of Los Osos bayshore land to the state park system is the goal of a reactivated Small Wilderness Area Preservation chapter.

The acreage, known as the Otto property, borders Morro Bay’s shoreline between South Bay Boulevard and 10th Street in Los Osos.

SWAP calls the property the Elfin Forest, “a generic term used by conservationists for such an area,” said Yolanda Waddell of Los Osos.

The El Moro Elfin Forest is visible from South Bay Boulevard as a stretch of unbroken green chaparral and pygmy oaks just west of the Los Osos Creek bridge.

Waddell was instrumental in reorganizing the county chapter of SWAP, a statewide organization. The chapter has 75 members.

She said the county chapter has been dormant since 1979 after the state bought the Los Osos Oaks State Reserve near Sunnyside Mobile Home Park on Los Osos Valley Road. SWAP chapters are organized with definite projects in mind, she said.

The largest chapter in the state is the Verdugo-San Rafael chapter with 400 members dedicated to saving the Verdugo Hills in the San Gabriel-Pasadena area and the San Rafael Hills in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Editor’s note: The writer mistakenly identified the location of the San Rafael Hills. They are also in the San Gabriel-Pasadena area.)

The county SWAP chapter was originally organized in 1971 with state acquisition of the oaks property as its goal.

“Having reached its goal, it became inactive,” Waddell said.

It was reactivated early in 1985 by Waddell to help preserve the bayshore property. “Securing this as-yet undeveloped area as urban wilderness reserve is in keeping with a new and vital tradition of maintaining the unique quality of life on the Central Coast,” she said.

In its booklet on the project, SWAP describes the acreage as “a unique and sensitive area. Its fragility and beauty begs to be protected from urban encroachment and preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Waddell said the 90 acres of property includes 20 acres of wetlands.

In the mid-’70s, the property was in state condemnation proceedings. The court determined that 50 acres of it were valued at $1.6 million and the state declined to buy it.

The owner, Shirley Otto of Montecito, then began a $1.5 million damage suit against the state for alleged loss of income from the property, Waddell said.

She said SWAP is seeking money to buy the 90-acre parcel and deed it to the state. Otto is the owner and has it up for sale, even though her damage suit still is pending in court.

Waddell said William Newman of Morro Bay, former superintendent of the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, has written letters for SWAP to 30 foundations selected for their interest in the Elfin Forest type of project.

“To date, we have had five replies indicating interest, including Atlantic Richfield and the Packard Foundation,” Waddell said.

Special days are held by SWAP to acquaint more people with the property. The most recent was Artist’s Day in the Elfin Forest, Waddell said.

“The resulting works of art will be matted and framed to be placed in a traveling show,” she said.

“Two of the black-and-white works will be reproduced and sold.”

One coloring book drawn by Los Osos artist Katie Davis, with calligraphy by Lesa Smith, will be printed to be sold.

Waddell said a large oak tree near the ridge trail in the forest was dated at about 200 years of age by Ron Ruppert, biology instructor at Cuesta College.

SWAP chapter members have named the tree the Dudleya Oak because it has a dudleya plant growing on it.

Waddell said the tree is located a short way down the ridge trail, which is just below the bay end of 15th Street.

The organization has Otto’s permission to post the property at the end of each street abutting the land in order to keep out vehicles.

Myron Graham of Los Osos had phoned Otto of SWAP’s concern about off-road vehicles damaging the property, Waddell said.

She said Otto wrote a letter to the county sheriff asking for prohibition of off-road vehicles on her land and gave SWAP a copy of the letter.