Summary of the Story
By Zeke Barlow
Ventura County Star, November 2011
SANTA ROSA ISLAND. The cattle grazing on grass-covered hills that tilt toward the Pacific Ocean are long gone.
So are the vaqueros who rose at "dark thirty" to round up the cattle while the glowing red embers of their hand-rolled cigarettes pierced the night. Soon, the nonnative deer and elk that wander through the craggy valleys of Santa Rosa Island will be a thing of the past, too.
Although Will Woolley is still there, he knows his family's time on the island also is limited.
"We are living the last days," said Woolley as a hard wind blew across the island. "It feels like a death in the family. This has been much harder than I anticipated."
For 25 years he has known Jan. 1, 2012, was coming - the day his family, the Vails, will no longer live on the island and Channel Islands National Park will take control of it. The Park Service bought the roughly 83-square-mile island 26 miles off the Santa Barbara coast for $30 million in 1986. But the Vail & Vickers operation was allowed to remain on the ranch. Through lawsuits and settlements, the cattle ranching eventually was phased out, and the deer and elk are being eradicated.
These days, the families are moving on, too, packing up memories and heirlooms and looking around their home one last time.
"It's a sad time," said Nita Vail, 54, who spent much of her childhood on the island. Her dad managed the cattle that would come from the mainland in the winter and leave fattened up two springs later.
"We were raised with this incredible love of the land and the island and taking care of it," she said. "It is very bittersweet."
This is no mere piece of property leaving a family. It is an island where four generations of Vails, as well as countless cowboys and cooks, hunters and explorers lived while raising cattle and families, hunting elk and forming memories of a place as special to them as it is unique in the United States.
LONG HISTORY ENDS
Across from the main ranch house, built in 1855 and believed to be the oldest wood home in Santa Barbara County, innocuous graffiti has become part of history. Upstairs from the tack room, Henry Lopez scribbled his name on the wood wall, along with the date Oct. 31, 1896. The otherwise anonymous cowboy is now as much a part of the island's history as are the cracked leather saddles and bridles that now collect dust and cobwebs in the barn.
Ranchers have been on the island since 1844, including a sheep operation that supplied wool for Civil War uniforms.
In the early 1900s, Walter Vail and J.V. Vickers were cattle ranching in Arizona, which was beset by a drought. They began looking for a ranch with better grass, and in 1901 they bought their first interest in Santa Rosa Island.
Unlike neighboring islands, Santa Rosa has plenty of flatland with ample freshwater, a perfect combination for cattle. While the rest of the country had cattle ready for sale in the summer when the grass peaked, California had a fall and winter grass growing season, allowing ranchers to provide a product when others couldn't.
Although ranching on an island was replete with challenges, the seasonal advantage gave it a financial edge. Vail ran the ranch while Vickers was a silent partner, an agreement that carried on to today.
Time and technology advanced, but the ranch was a decidedly old-school operation. Horses were the main mode of transportation. The first vehicle didn't arrive until after World War II. Hair from horses' manes was braided to make reins and chaps were cut from the hides of elk, which were brought to the island in 1909.
Vaqueros, many of the cowboys were Mexican, not only rounded up the cattle but also cooked meals, shod horses and built saddles and farm equipment from scratch. The entire operation could run with as few as 10 men on the island. The workers' families would live there, too, so a small, one-room schoolhouse was built that has views of the ocean and the mainland.
There were boom times on the island, when as many 8,000 cattle roamed the bluffs and valleys. But there were hard times, too, when a drought strangled the island in 1948 and the starving cattle had to be shipped to the mainland.
The days were always long and bodies were always sore after chasing cattle from one end of the island to another, but they were glorious times, said Nita Vail.
Many of her teen years were spent on the island herding cattle, the first woman of her generation to work the land. She fondly remembers rising before the sun, mounting her steed and seeing blue sparks fly as her horses' hooves struck the rocks below. While her friends spent their summers at Santa Barbara pool parties, she was covered in the dust that rose from the wandering cattle. She loved every minute of it.
"You grew up with this sense of fun and freedom," said Vail, a diamond pendant of the ranch's brand dangling around her neck. "You were never bored."
When the kids weren't working, there were mythic snipe to hunt, behemoth forts to build and miles of pristine beaches to explore. Woolley spent hours hauling around plaster of Paris for his father, an avid amateur archaeologist whose catalog is now at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The island is home to some of the oldest human bones found in North America.
Tim Vail, 60, and the eldest of the cousins, went to the island not to play but to work, although for him it was one and the same. He started on the payroll when he was 11, riding alongside the vaqueros when they left the ranch before sunup, then splitting up to round up cattle in far corners of the island. They'd meet for lunch, meat and beans grilled over an open fire, then bring the cattle back to the ranch before the sun sunk to the sea.
"It was all I ever wanted to," he said. "I thought I'd do it all my life."
When Congress created Channel Islands National Park in 1980, the Vails and Vickerses requested Santa Rosa be excluded. But Tim Vail said his parents' generation felt if they didn't voluntarily sell, they would eventually be forced to through condemnation or other means.
"We fought as long as was reasonable, but you can't fight the government," he said.
Documents show once the families decided to sell the island, they were aggressive in making sure it, not portions of Santa Cruz, was the first island the government purchased.
After the $30 million sale in 1986, the families were allowed to continue ranching on the island under a special use permit granted by the park.
But in 1996, the National Parks Conservation Association sued the Park Service, claiming, among other things, that the hunting and ranching operations were damaging the island's endangered species. A 1998 settlement among the three parties mandated the ranching operations terminate that year, while the deer and elk could remain until the end of 2011.
Hunters paid as much as $10,000 to fly to the island to bag the massive deer and elk that thrived because of the lack of predators. And that gave Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, an idea.
Although he never visited the island, in 2005 he proposed to keep the more than 1,000 animals there and turn it into hunting grounds for use by disabled veterans. The proposal went through various iterations and political fights before ultimately failing in 2007.
Since 2008, 25 percent of the deer and elk have been culled annually by trophy hunters who flew in from all over the country and meat hunters who live across the channel. The commercial hunt stopped in October, and professional hunters are now killing the remaining animals. Woolley, 47, ran the hunting trips and didn't want to see the animals go to waste, so the family donated about 7,000 pounds of meat to the Ventura County Rescue Mission.
He wishes the Park Service would leave a few animals to keep a legacy herd. They are part of history, too, he argues, a history that should be preserved.
"It's a different set of values on how to manage land," he said as he stood on a bluff overlooking Bechers Bay, where miles of pristine white beaches form a sandy crescent moon. Toward the top of the bay sits his former home, which will soon be a museum.
"It's a hard time," he said. "It does feel like a death in the family."
'A NEW CHAPTER'
Park Superintendent Russell Galipeau understands the Vails' mourning.
"When anyone sells their home, you have lots of memories, and a lot of your family values are all tied to there," he said. "And now it's coming to a reality that that part is over and it's onto a new chapter."
He hopes the Vail family will be a big part of that next chapter. Although plans on what will happen on the island are not finalized, they will undoubtedly include its history of ranching. He wants to see something like audio tours narrated by Nita Vail that explain how the cattle operations worked. Many of the buildings are historical, and Galipeau said the park will honor that heritage and tell visitors about the ranching legacy.
When the island reopens Jan. 1, it will be the largest of the five in the park open to the public. Santa Cruz is larger, but most of it is owned by the Nature Conservancy and closed to the public. Though the public could visit Santa Rosa outside the hunting season, the entire island has never been completely open to the public year-round.
It was never in the original sale agreement to allow cattle, elk or deer to remain on the island after 2012, Galipeau said. Beyond the challenges of maintaining the herds, the entire point of Channel Islands National Park is to preserve the natural resources, and the cattle and game don't meet that criteria, he said.
"When they were stewards of the island, they took care of it in the way they thought was the best way to take care of it," he said of the Vails and Vickerses. "Now the Park Service is taking care of it, but different values are in place."
The Vails are struggling with the reality that after more than 100 years on the island, they have just more than a month left. It was a place that molded them into who they are today.
Nita Vail runs the California Rangeland Trust, a nonprofit group that helps ranchers safeguard their property. Woolley recently started a cattle ranch in San Luis Obispo County. His sister, who spent hours with the Mexican farmhands and their families, is an immigration attorney. Tim Vail is a large-animal veterinarian.
"It's hard on everyone because it touched us all and made us," Tim Vail said, his voice heavy with emotion.
They are all taking their time spending one last day on the island, walking around the empty cattle paddocks and dusty barns. They know they were privy to this unique part of history. For 85 years, it was their private playground and livelihood.
"There is this sense of gratitude that prevails," said Nita Vail as she sat beneath the wind-carved Monterey cypress trees she played under as a child. "The island will always be in us."
Video Segment : The Last Roundup
Teacher-Created Lessons and Resources
Lesson Plan 1
Social Studies, Language Arts
Lesson Plan 2
Social Studies, Language Arts
Lesson Plan 3
Social Studies, Language Arts
Lesson Plan 4
Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Park (many links)
In Memoriam: Al Vail, 1921 – 2000 and Nate Vail ,1921 - 2005
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