For more than a century, outdoorsy-folk have been tromping through a sliver of private property on their way to Matilija Falls, north of Ojai in the Los Padres National Forest – but now, the owner of the private land says he’s had enough of the hikers.
According to the LA Times, Shull “Buzz” Bonsall Jr. has been approaching hikers on the trail for about a year, telling them they’re trespassing on his land. Earlier this year he contacted the Forest Service to tell them he was officially no longer allowing a right-of-way, and he began putting up No Trespassing signs. Local conservation groups formed a coalition called Keep Access To Matilija Falls Open, and now, the battle begins.
From what I’ve been able to piece together from the Times and another article in the Ventura County Star, Bonsall purchased the land along Matilija Creek in 1977, knowing that the area was a popular destination for hikers. Since then, hikers in the area have been able to walk through the private property on a paved path to Matilija Falls to the west and a series of campgrounds to the north along the creek’s Upper North Fork.
While no specific incident was mentioned in the articles, Bonsall said he was concerned with vandalism, trash, and the possibility of an injury on his property. Apparently Bonsall has been reluctant to talk to anyone any further regarding the issue – neither newspaper was able to get a comment from him for their stories, the conservation group said it would like to come to an agreement with him to maintain the public easement but hasn’t heard anything yet, and even the Forest Service has tried to find out if he would be willing to sell a portion of his land for the public trust, but has gotten nowhere. So, stalemate.
Sometimes – especially here in California – our federal recreation lands and wildernesses are a patchwork of private and public land. Just look at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area for an example. Trails will often pass through small stretches of private property with little trouble, and while apparently that isn’t the case at Matilija, until both sides can come to the table to air their grievances hikers are stuck without a trail to hike.
The good news is that usually in cases like this, both sides can come to an agreement after a little mediation. Sometimes the landowner is just tired of the crowds. Sometimes they’re looking for a bit of cash. Other times, some bad-egg hikers are just ruining it for everyone else. But if both sides can’t come to the table, the Keep Access folks are ready to take it to the courtroom instead – if they can prove the area has been used by the public since the late 60s (which doesn’t sound like it will be that hard to do), then they say the public continues to have the legal right of way regardless of Mr. Bonsall’s wishes.
Hopefully once both sides start talking, we can find out what’s actually going on up there. Until then, it’s probably best to stay away from this area.