By Ryan Masters, Santa Cruz Sentinel
POSTED: 01/02/17, 5:19 PM PST| UPDATED: 9 HRS AGO
Mike Splain, executive director of Ventana Wilderness Alliance, said public lands like the Big Sur backcountry need funding for proper management. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
SANTA CRUZ >> Mike Splain, executive director of Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Alliance, watched helplessly as the Soberanes Fire burned 200 square miles of Big Sur last summer.
He experienced a similar sense of dismay months later as Donald Trump won the presidential election.
The fire was destructive, Splain said, but Trump’s impact on public lands could be devastating. Although the president-elect’s land-use policies remain undefined, his transition team has repeatedly called for renewed fossil fuel development and leasing on public lands and waters.
“The good news is we’ve seen a big fundraising bump we’re calling ‘The Trump Effect,’” Splain said. “People are realizing we have to rely on nonprofits and private conservation to pick up the slack as the feds defund public lands management.”
The Ventana Wilderness Alliance, which began as an advocacy group in 1998, scored a major victory early when it helped federally protect 50,000 acres of wilderness-quality land in the Ventana and Silver Peak wilderness areas.
“We thought, ‘Mission accomplished.’ Then we watched as ever-more conservative Congresses clamored to get rid of public lands,” Splain said. “Their strategy has been to cut funding then accuse land management agencies of incompetence and call for the privatization of parks and campgrounds.”
As those budget cuts affected California State Parks, the U.S. Forest Service and other land management agencies, Ventana Wilderness Alliance expanded its advocacy mission to include stewardship.
Today, the organization trains and deploys trail maintenance crews; mans the backcountry with volunteer wilderness rangers; and educates the next generation with a Youth in Wilderness program — among many other things.
“The trails need to be maintained so people can get back there to experience the backcountry; our rangers are there to teach people how to treat it; and the youth program exists to pass it all on,” Splain said.
The U.S. Forest Service no longer has the budget to do these things, Splain said. It hasn’t employed a backcountry ranger since the 1980s. In fact, Big Sur’s interior would be impassable without Ventana Wilderness Alliance trail crews.
“So much of the Forest Service budget is devoted to fighting fires, it’s in danger of being renamed the U.S. Fire Service,” said Splain.
Which brings Splain back to the Soberanes Fire, which he believes could have been avoided with appropriate visitor and recreation management.
“Suppression was estimated to cost $6 million per day in the early phases of the fire — enough money to train and employed 100 full-time field staff for an entire year,” Splain said. “What if a single ranger had walked the Soberanes Canyon Trail to find the illegal campfire that started this mess?”
At $236 million, the Soberanes Fire has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history.
“It will all have been in vain if we don’t get ahead of this issue and put pressure on decision makers to properly fund the management of our public lands once and for all,” Splain said.
For more information about Ventana Wilderness Alliance, visit ventanawild.org.