A new place to be, free and forever

By John Hankins

High atop the hills overlooking Ventura -- and the coast east to west -- is a 1645-acre plot of land that was a development war zone until now. Truly a game-changer for the area as citizens rejected those large development plans in favor of open space forever.

Once inhabited by the Chumash, it has come full circle to be the people’s land again, “a place where we belong rather than dominate” via private property, noted Russell Galipeau, a trustee of Ventura Land Trust and former superintendent of the Channel Islands National Park.

The land, called Mariano Rancho, was purchased by the Trust recently, and an event celebrating that – along with a $7.2 million grant – drew notable people responsible to the press event on Sept. 21.

Assemblymember Steve Bennett and State Senator Monique Limón were on hand to present the check that they acquired via state funding to VLT Executive Director Melissa Baffa, trustees and staff.

“How special this place is . . . it’s a gift to the community and is nothing short of a game-changer for Ventura County,” Baffa said.

“I am genuinely moved,” Bennett added, “you can see everything that connects us together . . . it links the low-income people on the Avenue and links all the communities (of Ventura) together.”

Limón homed in on how special it is as “we don’t have this in all communities,” lauding all who made it happen for “a future that understands conservation … I am honored (to help) and excited that one day it will be open to all.” She also noted citizens have been breaking the law by trespassing all these years, but when it opens to the public, it would be ‘decriminalized’!

VLT expects it will open to the public by 2025 as it must find and develop public access, parking lot, portable potties, evaluate and build trails and more, as there is virtually no parking on the crowded steep streets leading up to the property. Location is defined as from the iconic Two Trees to the West Side (Botanic Gardens).

For now, VLT’s Harmon Canyon on the east side of Ventura is humming with hikers and bikers with miles of trails that are expanding every year. That 2,100-acre preserve was opened to the public officially in June  2020; it is open dawn to dusk, located at 7511 Foothill Road.

Sierra Club has been quick to offer hikes at Harmon and will surely do the same at Mariano. Volunteers anyone?

Other speakers included Matthew Vestuto, Vice President of the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians; Ventura City Mayor Sofia Rubalcava, VLT Board president Mark Watkins, Marlyss Auster of Visit Ventura and Dianne Underhill of the Ventura Citizens for Hillsides Preservation (VCHP).

Underhill gave a quick rendering of what was one of the most hard-fought campaigns ever. “It takes years of toil by hundreds of supporters” and VLT’s bold decision to buy the property when it still owed millions for Harmon. “It was a risk for us,” Watkins said, but he and the trustees were confident the public would step up.

In summing up, Underhill quoted Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

 A very special guest was Derek Poultney (and his dog Buddy) who was VLT’s Executive Director when the properties came up for sale. “Derek kept the hope to keep this alive,” Bennett noted.

Last year Derek decided to leave VLT to head up the CREW from Ojai, and after a search VLT hired Baffa who has been the right person to carry on the mission, partly due to her work with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and her robust background in ecology, biology and critters on land and sea.

Shuttle transportation for press and guests up a narrow road was provided by Kirby Subaru.

“We stand on the grounds of the Chumash people,” Baffa noted, “it’s a call to be better stewards of the land.”

Not only that, by reviving Mariano with native plants and professional stewardship, it will provide a firebreak, a cleaner watershed, more recreation and a welcome home to animals.

Editor’s note: The author is a VLT trustee and Condor Call editor.

open space
“Enjoy this special moment,” said Assembly member Steve Bennett as he, State Senator Monique Limon and Ventura Land Trust Executive Director Melissa Baffa take it all in together atop the Mariano Rancho land overlooking the city of Ventura, the coast and the islands. It will be open to the public by 2025. (Photo by Condor John)