A rare time and place to save a piece of original California
A Natural and Cultural History Reserve for Big Sur and the
Santa Lucia Mountains on the California Central Coast






One of America’s most stirring displays of nature can and should be kept intact forever.

The Santa Lucia mountain range on the Central California coast is a rare, bold and complex collection of distinctive original California. Great granite cliffs, vast forests, lovely valleys with oak savannahs, mysterious marine coves and tumbling rivers have survived nearly intact into the 21st Century.

Within the ecological island known around the world as Big Sur is a beautiful bowl in the mountains, San Antonio Valley the Spaniards called, “The Jewel of the Santa Lucias.”

Many of the great communities of native California plants and geology mix, intermingle here in a celebration of the wondrous biological diversity that is California.

Now there is a vision forming by citizens who want to protect it so future generations may learn about the unique natural wonders of California.
A natural and cultural history reserve in the Santa Lucia Mountains of California’s Central Coast is proposed.

People who want to rest and renew their inner self come to Big Sur for its tranquility, beauty and serenity. It looks like California did before modern civilization.

Ventana, Window to the past
The Big Sur coastline of the Santa Lucia Mountains flanks the Ventana Wilderness, named for the Spanish word for “window.” The “ventana” here is formed by the juxtaposition of a suite of conical mountain peaks, made resistant to erosion by their granitic and ancient metamorphic rock structure. It is said that this “window to the west” formed the gateway for the spirits of the Esselen people as they left this earthly existence. The Esselen occupied a relatively small territory that included several of these “cones.”

The neighboring Salinan people occupied a much more expansive territory. It includes the area encompassed by Fort Hunter Liggett, the Hearst Ranch and Piedras Blancas.Always more numerous than the Esselen, members of the Salinan Nation are cautiously reemerging from centuries during which their cultural heritage was necessarily driven “underground.”

From the pristine beach coves of Piedras Blancas, where the Great Northern Elephant Seals, once considered extinct, have made a resounding comeback in the front yard of the Hearst Castle – to the pastoral mountain Valleys of the Ventana back country, an opportunity and an imperative merge.

Young, bold, precocious mountains burst with energy. Composed of great geologic formations from the far north, the far south and from deep inside the earth, the Santa Lucia mountain range is rare and alluring. Rising precipitously out of the Pacific Ocean so sharply they startled the intrepid Spanish Explorers. So wild was their interior, so filled with wildlife, that the early settlers would not venture there.

These mountains on the California coast are huge on any scale. In the scope of this setting they are magnificent. Rising more than 2,000 feet practically straight up out of the ocean, and looming 6,000 feet in the nearby Alpine back country, the range is studded with massive granite and marble peaks. It is a geology storybook.

Raw and rugged at one angle, at another they smoothly lay out in sensuous glens.

More than half of all the native plants of this remarkably diverse state have a home in this mountain range. Some valleys have hundreds of native plants that are on lists of endangered, and threatened plants. And, more are found with each new study.

All the great trees
that migrated from the arctic north and desert south, millions of years ago gather here to make their last stand.
This is where the great botanists of the 19th Century came to discover trees – the Coulter – Douglas – and their specimens filled the conservancies of the world.
Santa Lucia Fir – the rarest and most beautiful trees in the world came to be the crowning grace of Europe’s most renowned arboretums.
But, the real exhilaration was only to be felt by actually coming here to witness the meeting of the magnificent Ponderosas, Sugar Pines and Redwoods.
Rare creatures

Sea Otters, once thought extinct, were rediscovered here. Condors and American Bald Eagles now roam the Big Sur skies above the Santa Lucias. The morning fog is filled with songs of sea lions.


An array of avian species occur in the region: California condor, bald eagle, golden eagle, prairie falcon, peregrine falcon, Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, Bell’s vireo, yellow breasted chat, purple martin, and the highest concentration of oak savanna specialists in the nation, including yellow-billed magpie, acorn woodpecker, Nuttall’s woodpecker, white breasted nuthatch and western bluebird, according to an annual Breeding Bird Survey conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This concentration of prime oak savanna habitats is of national significance.

The Monks of New Camaldoli Hermitage and other nearby religious retreats at Tassajara, and spiritual study centers, have a very protective feeling for the area. They all consider it priceless because of its unique qualities for the pursuit of contemplation. People from around the world come here to contemplate because it is so powerfully natural. Wilderness advocates consider this region to be uniquely suited to the study of nature, and the earnest pursuit of renewing the spirit by experiencing nature. More than a milllion people every year come here to savor that uniqueness.

Status of this land
Much of the area has become public land. Nearly 200,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest is the Ventana Wilderness and the Silver Peak Wilderness.
50,000 more acres are proposed as additions to the Wilderness. California has eight state parks in the area.

These lands represent another window on one of the quintessential landscapes of our California heritage that is all but lost elsewhere. Valley oak woodlands in California’s Central Valley are disappearing at the hands of development. Yet, some of the most sumptuous valley oak woodlands to be found in the state have been protected from land conversion by Fort Hunter Liggett.

Unlike the lands currently protected by the National Forest, the lands currently proposed for protection include topography more suitable for land development and agricultural conversion than the more rugged lands of the Wilderness areas and Forest. Similar lands in this region are daily being converted to vineyards or housing.

At the south end of this great coastal mountain wilderness is the Hearst Castle. Now a state park, it resides above a vast open space that rolls to the ocean in an unbroken melody of real coastal California. But, it may not be unbroken for long. For decades the subject of controversy, it is the last big coastal space coveted by developers.

Lower Big Sur, above Piedras Blancas. Watercolor by Jeff Bryant

North Fork of the Nacimiento River (right)

The U.S. Senate could approve a transition of the property to the National Park Service. Mechanisms for long-term protection of the resources are being studied, in the event of future base closure actions by BRAC. The California Coastal Conservancy will be asked to acquire lands around the fort to provide a conservation buffer zone for a proposed park.

A park was proposed several decades ago. Ansel Adams, the American photographer of Yosemite and Sierra Mountain fame, was among the leaders of the effort. But the idea collapsed in the face of area ranchers, and remnants of homesteader families who thought they could protect the area better than the government could. They didn’t want another Yosemite and its hordes of people.

But, these days, with the imperative to protect the area becoming so obvious under the threat of a massive bombing assault year around, other kinds of parks are considered.

Mission San Antonio de Padua. Serra Peak – previously called Santa Lucia Peak – the largest mountain in the range is on the horizon.

The area is rich with archaeological heritage. Stony Valley, in San Antonio Valley, and part of Fort Hunter Liggett, is the site of a proposed bombing target range. Stony Valley is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and has a large number of certified archaeological sites. The Salinans consider the valley sacred.

A new threat – a Navy fighter jet bombing training range has been proposed
Six years ago Fort Hunter Liggett was slated for closing as a military installation. The Active Component Mission was eliminated, and the Test and Experimentation Center (TEC) was moved to Fort Bliss, Texas. But, the Reserve Component was retained. The Army has fought surrendering the 165,000 acres. Instead, it has solicited other military units to train there. One of those was a fighter jet bomber training unit from Lemoore NAS in Central California. In the Navy’s proposal to establish bomber training at FHL, the very heart of the Salinan homeland, Stony Valley would be bombed many thousands times a year -more than 35,000 dummy bombs, with smoke charges, will be dropped, night and day a year. Thousands of jet aircraft would strafe the area, even coming from aircraft carriers off the coast, and loudly zooming straight over a monk hermitage and the serene wilderness.

Since the Indians lived there, the Santa Lucias have stopped everybody. The formidable mountains caused Portola to sweep inland to Salinas Valley in order to get to Monterey. The seclusion of the rare habitats has been their saving.

But, now the Navy wants to bomb them.


The Navy’s proposal may serve to mobilize the public to speak up and to act to save the region for its best possible use: Protect and Study nature, provide a homeland for the Salinans and be a refuge for contemplation and renewal.

In the course of the world learning about the plan to bomb here, outrage has emerged. (See the Wall of Conscience – letters against the bombing, and for protecting the region for its ecological and cultural treasures: <http://www.pelicannetwork.net/bomb.letters.htm>


A Proposal in Progress

Salinan Tribal Council leaders are discussing preservation of the cultural and natural heritage of their homelands with others who have abiding interests in this rare region. They all want to create a protection for the area that allows others to learn from it.





A program of economic development for the Salinan Nation with ecological and cultural restoration projects is being studied.

A citizens’ group, the Big Sur Sanctuary Coalition, is discussing the possibility of creating a new land use management group- a multi agency, an interdisciplinary group- of which the Salinan Nation was a principal partner.

There are private effort to acquire the Hearst Ranch. The Piedras Blancas coastline, a community of U.S. Dept. of Interior environmental agencies in and around the lighthouse, and the remarkable elephant seal colonies is included in the envisioned area. Land conservancies, now stakeholders in the future of the area, want to jointly produce long range resource protection plans for the region. It is of great interest to them that San Antonio Valley be part of the plan, and that it be part of a visitor user concept. From the talks with Salinans and others who place value on indigenous people’s stewardship of the land, and this area’s textbook experience with the advent of California exploitation by other cultures, a vision is emerging.

Because of the unique state of superb preservation for the cultural and natural history elements of the area, a cultural and ecological resources campus is envisioned for the surplused lands and buildings of Fort Hunter Liggett.

This is a place that affords a grand and rare opportunity for learning the California experience.

A campus would be designed in partnership with learning institutions (possibly Hartnell College, MPC, Cabrillo, CSUMB, UCSC, UC Berkeley), service providers (eco tour operators), state and national parks, private industry (straw bale construction, native plant nurseries, hospitality lodging), and more. The evolution of a multi agency management plan would be highly inclusionary – it would be necessary to include all local business interests, the Army, outdoors sportsmen (i.e., hunters), ranchers, wilderness advocates, historical and religious groups, and natural history conservationists, all to work in partnership with the Salinan Nation. A principal objective of the campus partnership would be an ecologically and economically sustainable community. Along with learning campus functions, there are facilities needs for the Salinans, such as elderly housing and medical care.

Historical prizes abound in the San Antonio Valley region, indeed as much as to warrant designation as a special district, and a recreation in the spirit of Williamsburg and Columbia. Even though the Army used old adobes for target practice, there is a plentiful inventory of pioneering homesteader sites; mission and Spanish rancherias for the Salinans; the Hearst Ranch hunting reserve and Lodge; and the recreation of the Portola Trail which presents incredible learning opportunities. And, of all the California missions, San Antonio de Padua is one of the most authentically restored to its original functions, and so is the most instructive of that critical era in our state’s history.

The Salinan heritage sites are of special significance. There are literally hundreds of certified archaeological sites in the region that testify to the Salinan 10,000 year presence in the Valley. The well preserved state of the subject area in tandem with the recovering of the Salinan culture presents a marvelous learning opportunity. Because of disease, slavery and cultural oppression, the Salinan population was decimated.

For much of the past century, the culture was considered extinct. But, they were not, and are now flourishing. Now they are ready to work with hikers, ecologists, artists, historians, teachers, parents and students, to create a proposal for a natural and cultural resource reserve that shall be a viable alternative to the Army and Navy proposal to bomb their homeland.


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