In 1969, Southern California suffered one of the largest oil spills in history, prompting national outrage and environmental awareness. Today, part of the Pacific coast near Channel Islands National Park remains vulnerable to drilling and other threats. Soon, decades of work by the Chumash people could lead to the country’s first Tribally nominated national marine sanctuary.
Channel Islands National Park and the marine habitat that surrounds it make up one of the most biodiverse coastal regions in the world, with a long and rich cultural history. It’s the traditional home of the Chumash people, and members of these seafaring Tribes have been working for decades to preserve their lands and waters from drilling, development and other threats. After a devastating explosion at an oil well in 1969 devastated birds and marine life along the coast, the Chumash and their allies have been seeking formal federal protections in the form of a national marine sanctuary.
In this episode, host Jennifer Errick interviews guests Violet Sage Walker, Chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and nominator for the proposed sanctuary; Sarah Barmeyer, Deputy Vice President of Conservation Programs for the National Parks Conservation Association; and Paul Michel, Regional Policy Coordinator for the West Coast Office of National Marine Sanctuaries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They discuss some of the reasons this region is so special, what could be included in a proposed national marine sanctuary, and how Tribal members might remain involved in managing these lands and waters after the designation.
This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher and Bev Stanton.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer.
Learn more about the proposed sanctuary at chumashsanctuary.org.
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at npca.org
Making Things Whole
Jennifer Errick: In 1969, Southern California suffered one of the largest oil spills in history, prompting national outrage and setting the stage for some of the country's most important environmental laws. Yet a critical part of the Pacific Coast still remains vulnerable to drilling and other threats. Today we're going to explore how decades of work by the Chumash people could lead to the country's first Tribally led national marine sanctuary. I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is the Secret Lives of Parks.
Channel Islands National Park preserves a chain of five remarkable islands off the coast of Southern California, as well as the ocean habitat that immediately surrounds them. This archipelago in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties is part of a much broader marine ecosystem. Cold waters from the north meet the subtropical waters of the Santa Barbara channel here, creating one of the most biodiverse coastal regions in the world.
Sometimes referred to as the Galapagos of North America. This area of the Pacific is home to a variety of plants and animals that simply can't be found anywhere else. Visitors marvel at the rocky cliffs, the sea caves, the trails to wild and breathtaking views. It's a special place that has earned a spot on many bucket lists, including mine.
The Channel Islands and surrounding area also have a long and rich cultural history. It's where some of the oldest evidence of human life has been discovered in North America, and it's the traditional home of the Chumash and Tongva people, seafaring Tribes who traverse these waters in elegant plank boats known as tomols. Today, some 6,000 to 8,000 Chumash people live in the region in seven designated Tribes and several other affiliated groups. Several thousand Tongva people also belong to two main Tribes in the state.
For decades, the Chumash people have been spearheading formal efforts at the federal level to protect the region from an array of dangers.
Violet Sage Walker: There's always an ongoing threat to our area and our territory. Our elder, Roberta Cordero, she always says, "It's our obligation. It's Tribal people's obligation that we have to protect our sites until we're not here anymore. It's our obligation that we do this as long as we're alive."
Jennifer Errick: That's Violet Sage Walker, chairwoman for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council. Walker and other members of the council have proposed creating a Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, which would preserve 156 miles of coastline and about 7,600 square miles of some of the most important ocean waters in the world.
National marine sanctuaries are federally protected areas managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known by the acronym NOAA, similar to the way national park sites are managed by the National Park Service.
But the long fight to protect this part of the Pacific Ocean predates the creation of NOAA and began as a response to a devastating disaster. In January 1969, an explosion at an oil well sent 3 million gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel covering beaches and black ooze, killing thousands of birds and devastating marine life in the region. The spill covered 30 miles of coastline and oil continued to leak for many months after the explosion through ruptures in the ocean floor created by the disaster.
Violet Sage Walker: Different environmental organizations and NGOs were formed. The Clean Air, Clean Water Act, all these different acts were formed in Congress.
Our elder Pilulaw Khus was at the beaches during the oil spill. I asked her what she was doing there, and she said that she was praying for the animals that were being saved, praying for their souls, and praying for their health and praying for them to survive. And I thought about that picture of our elders doing ceremony over these animals covered in oil. The 1969 oil spills were the third largest in the world, and that's where we began this journey.
Jennifer Errick: Walker has been leading efforts to create the monument since her father, Northern Chumash Tribal Chief Fred Collins, passed away in October of last year.
Violet Sage Walker: It was my dad that was the spokesperson and the organizer, and he was the driving force behind coalescing this group of people that had wanted the National Marine Sanctuary to be extended all the way to the Channel Islands for the past 40 years. But it wasn't until the Chumash people got involved that the support began to increase with momentum, increase with backers, increase with local electeds.
Jennifer Errick: If the coalition succeeds and NOAA creates the marine sanctuary, it will be the first Tribally led designation of its kind.
Violet Sage Walker: Everything has opened the path for this to be priority number one. It's ready to go, and we've done all the hard work, we've done all the heavy lifting. It's really well researched, really well thought out. I think the level of importance and the level of outreach that we've done is reflected by how much support we have.
Jennifer Errick: NOAA recommended moving forward with the proposal late last year and a public comment period earlier this year generated more than 22,000 comments, the overwhelming majority of which were in support of the sanctuary.
Violet Sage Walker: They're going to be looking at all those comments. I think they're mad at me, actually, because they have to read all those comments. I feel like maybe I should send them some flowers or like a sympathy card for NOAA's staff. A shout out to the NOAA staff that has to read all those comments. They said that they wanted broad community support. We have everybody from entire class of third graders that submitted drawings all the way up to the vice president and our senators, our congressmen. We have support all over, from every walk of life.
Jennifer Errick: To say that Walker's mission is personal would be an understatement. Her family history and cultural ties to the region run deep.
Violet Sage Walker: I'm, like, a seventh-generation beekeeper, and we all lived at the ocean. We all fished and hunted there. They were farmers, they had apple orchards. My dad walked there every single morning basically of his life, and he actually now resides in that part of the ocean. We did our ceremony there, and we put my dad there, and that's where he wanted to be.
Jennifer Errick: Her home of Avila Beach is part of the coastal region that would be protected by the national marine sanctuary.
Violet Sage Walker: That's one of our biggest village sites. And who wouldn't want to live in Avila? They estimate there could have been 10,000 Chumash people living there, and the resources were so abundant that we had one of the most advanced trading and spiritual systems — and astrology and education and builders and craftsmen.
Jennifer Errick: To the south, another important highlight of the proposed sanctuary is a biodiverse area that serves as a spiritual gateway for the Chumash people.
Violet Sage Walker: We also have Point Conception, which is our Western Gate in historical stories. That's where all people, regardless of your faith and where you're from, that's where we believe all people leave this planet and turn to the next world, into the setting sun over the western Pacific and into the next life. And so, we believe that's where the souls exit this world. Our elders occupied point conception to prevent it from being developed by the gas companies and stuff back in the 70s. And the elders are still here, they're still telling our story, and they want to tell their story for the sanctuary.
Jennifer Errick: Walker mentions another important site in Morro Bay that would be part of the proposed sanctuary, a place where she's been carrying on a mission of her late father’s to bring a culturally significant rock formation back to its former glory.
Violet Sage Walker: Morro Rock, which is named Lisamu, that's the Chumash name — it means the sacred one, the one that stands in a sacred place. At one time it was completely surrounded by water and considerably bigger. And you might wonder how come a rock would've been bigger. And that was because the Army Corps of Engineers, in their infinite wisdom, blew up half the rock to make the breakwaters. So, our sacred rock, which we consider as important as one of the Seven Wonders of the World — it was a spiritual place that the Chumash were caretakers and guardians of — it was blown up. And my dad had asked them to put the rock back together.
Jennifer Errick: Walker's father, Tribal Chief Fred Collins, spoke with the Army Corps of Engineers about six years ago, asking them to reconstruct the original formation, an effort Walker refers to as Operation Reunite the Rock. Just a month after her father's passing last year, Walker received a phone call from a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers as she was in the midst of planning a large community memorial. She discussed an arrangement with the Corps to recover part of the breakwater and create a seamount next to the sacred rock bringing some of those lost pieces back together. Walker sees this arrangement as an important step, as with all efforts to preserve the history and culture of the Chumash people.
Violet Sage Walker: This is making our people whole again. You heal wounds and make things right. And part of that is having the marine sanctuary with a Tribal-led nomination. They're all important.
Jennifer Errick: The beauty and significance of so many of these places have motivated many people to devote hours of their time to preserving the region. But to Walker, the most important aspect of the proposed sanctuary is something much simpler.
Violet Sage Walker: The thing that is the most exciting and for me is the name, Chumash Heritage. When people around the world close their eyes and you say, "Hawaiians," you have a picture in your mind of whatever you picture when you think of Hawaiian people, whether it's their beautiful like dresses or their clothing or their flowers or their islands, their language, their songs — you have this picture in your head of a Hawaiian. People don't have that picture of the Chumash.
This is our opportunity to bring that forward to the world and show the world who we are and share our stories and share our songs and share our history and our oral traditions and our faith and our prayers and our sacred places. And our elder Pilulaw said that, "If you don't share why things are so important, then people won't know why to protect them."
There's not enough of us left to protect everything and there's not enough of us left to do all the work. So, we need partners, and we need to explain the importance of these areas to our partners so that they will continue to protect them when we're not here.
Jennifer Errick: The waters in this part of Southern California aren't just culturally significant. They're also extremely ecologically important for marine life and for people.
Sarah Barmeyer: If we just do more to protect our oceans, our oceans will do more to protect us in the long run.
Jennifer Errick: That's Sarah Barmeyer, Deputy Vice President of Conservation Programs at the National Parks Conservation Association. Her expertise is in ocean conservation, and she has a passion for protecting underwater habitats such as marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments that most of us will never be able to see with our own eyes. She likes to emphasize that regardless of whether we live near the coast or even like doing things like swimming or snorkeling, we all depend on the sea to breathe. Oceans generate about half of the world's oxygen and a billion people, including millions of Americans, depend on healthy oceans for their livelihoods.
Sarah Barmeyer: Conserving America's most valuable underwater treasures to me, it doesn't matter if it's a national park or a national marine sanctuary. These places really preserve biodiversity, they protect endangered species, they provide numerous recreational and economic opportunities. And most importantly, perhaps right now as climate change impacts are increasing, they build resilience against these impacts that we're seeing.
Jennifer Errick: One of the ways national marine sanctuaries help wildlife survive is by creating safe zones where species can migrate if waters get too warm in their traditional habitats.
Sarah Barmeyer: By protecting these underwater places, what we're really doing is creating these steppingstones in our oceans where populations can shift to escape places where warming waters may be happening so that they have these safer havens where they can thrive and grow.
Jennifer Errick: The Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, if established, would fill a critical gap between the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which protects the six nautical miles of water surrounding the national park, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which protects coastal waters to the north, including the Monterey and San Francisco regions. One of the reasons this area is so important for so many living things is because of its complex underwater geography, which fosters a process known as upwelling. Upwelling creates a kind of ocean gathering place for plankton and other important sources of food.
Sarah Barmeyer: The lands underwater, the sea floor underwater, is not dissimilar to what we see on land. So, you can think of around the Appalachians, we have sort of a ridge and valley system. While it's not exactly the same, there are these elevations and drops on the ocean floor. It centralizes this phytoplankton and these small parts of the food chain that then fish feed on. Then larger predators come in and it attracts just this web of life. The birds come in; the fish come in. Then the larger marine mammals come in and they become these amazing feeding areas that are some of the most essential places to protect. They generate this type of growth that really sustains life in the ocean and other areas.
Jennifer Errick: Barmeyer witnessed this web of life firsthand when she visited the Channel Islands last year as part of a five-day educational cruise organized by the National Parks Conservation Association.
Sarah Barmeyer: I've always wanted to go to Channel Islands because it is home to the most well protected, intact marine protected areas of any national park. The first morning on the ship when we woke up, it was probably the best wakeup call of my life. The ship captain had told us they'll never wake us up before 7:00 AM unless something is going on. And you typically think like, "Oh that means an emergency." Around 6:45 we get a wakeup call to come to the bow of the ship because the ship is surrounded by humpback whales and these whales are using the ship to corral their food. It was one of the most amazing wildlife experiences I have ever seen in my life.
So, with the whales corralling the food, comes the dolphins, comes the California sea lions. There's this ripple effect, and heads were popping up of these different animals. You're seeing dorsal fins and tails going in and out of the water. And then the humpback whales were breaching, meaning they're jumping out of the water and doing flips. All I could think about if this is the first morning, I can't wait for the next morning.
Jennifer Errick: Barmeyer also emphasizes that experiences like these drive enormous amounts of tourism. Who wouldn't want to be in that boat?
Sarah Barmeyer: There's studies that they've done in this area that it will strengthen this tourism-based economy of this area of California by generating an estimated $23 million in economic activity while also creating 600 new jobs in this area. So just by creating this designation, by establishing this protected area, you're giving a boost to this local economy.
Jennifer Errick: One of the most important ways a national marine sanctuary would benefit the region and its economy would be to prevent the kind of catastrophe that happened here in 1969 from happening again.
Sarah Barmeyer: We're confident that it will stop the threat of oil drilling expansion in that area off the coast of California.
Jennifer Errick: And this of course has been a major goal of generations of Chumash people and thousands of their allies.
Paul Michel knows a lot about managing ocean habitat. He served as superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary for more than 13 years before moving to his current role as regional policy coordinator for NOAA's West Coast Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. It's in this capacity that he's been reviewing documents and drawing up different alternatives for what a Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary could include and how it would be managed.
It's no small job, but he doesn't seem to mind.
Paul Michel: It's my favorite thing to talk about these days.
Jennifer Errick: I start our conversation by asking specifically about the state of oil and gas drilling in this part of the Pacific. Although many of the oil drilling platforms in the region are in the process of being decommissioned, several in the Santa Barbara area are still active. How these wells are handled is one of the details that still needs to be determined through the designation process.
Paul Michel: In the proposed sanctuary, the proposed Chumash Heritage National Sanctuary, there are both active wells and wells that are being decommissioned and removed, and the platforms associated with them and their infrastructure, in the years ahead. And so, backing up to the purpose of a national marine sanctuary, one might conclude because the West Coast sanctuaries prohibit oil and gas exploration and development that it may not seem compatible with the national marine sanctuary. But we do have examples within our program, especially in the Gulf of Mexico with Flower Gardens National Sanctuary, where there are active oil and gas platforms that essentially are carved out or included within the boundary but exempted from sanctuary regulations. And so, we’re working with the Department of the Interior about how to address those active and decommissioned sites within the boundaries of the new sanctuary.
Jennifer Errick: Proponents of the sanctuary hope the designation will both protect the region from new oil and gas development, as well as encourage the industry to decommission and repurpose active wells after their leases expire.
The resources at stake clearly merit protection. According to Michel, NOAA recommended moving ahead on the sanctuary proposal late last year for three main reasons.
Paul Michel: The reasons why NOAA decided to move forward with this designation, there are three main reasons.
One, the ecosystem, the offshore onshore resources are nationally significant. It's an amazing, abundant, productive, biodiverse area that's very clear.
Secondly, when we heard this pretty loud and clear in the scoping with, we received over 22,000 comments during the scoping period. We heard pretty loud and clear that this stretch of coast and ocean has a lot of challenging issues and there's a great need for a community based, ecosystem-based planning forum for public participation and agency participation to figure all this stuff out. And that's what sanctuaries do. Sanctuaries are adaptive management and very transparent and have a very scientifically based and publicly participate based management approach.
And then the third reason was this is the first Tribally nominated sanctuary in our system. So, this is an opportunity to not only highlight and celebrate Indigenous culture on this coast, but more deliberately involve them in collaborative management of the sanctuary, bring traditional ecological knowledge and cultural values into the management of this sanctuary.
Jennifer Errick: Although there are examples in the marine sanctuary system of federal collaboration and engagement with Tribes, including along the Olympic coastline of Washington state and the waters that surround the Polynesian Islands of American Samoa, Michel notes that every designation is unique and how members of the Tribes will want to engage in management issues is still an open question.
Paul Michel: Well, across the federal government there's examples with the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the National Fishery Service, another part of NOAA, and those agreements typically focus around traditional uses, traditional harvest, subsistence use around take or possession of animals or their parts. And so, it's a kind of subset of management. I think something will emerge similar here, because I don't know that the Tribes will necessarily want to be engaged in all aspects of day-to-day sanctuary management. But that's what we're exploring. What are their interests? Where do they want to be co-managers? What particular issues are most interesting to them?
Jennifer Errick: Michel knows well that management involves a whole range of tasks.
Paul Michel: The day-to-day management of sanctuary, cause I did it for almost 14 years, it's everything from running a facility or visitor center to running a research vessel or patrol boat and personnel management and budgeting. And I think there's going to be an obvious subset of what a sanctuary manages that will be of particular interest to the Tribes. Not to say that all that's not on the table, I just think that there's going to be sort of a sweet spot of those management issues where Tribes really want to have an active role.
Jennifer Errick: Overall public support for the marine sanctuary and for Tribal co-management has been strong, although there have been detractors.
According to Violet Sage Walker, much of the opposition to the sanctuary has come, unsurprisingly, from the oil and gas industry. Some in the fishing industry have also opposed the designation, but she stresses that people at sustainable fishing operations have supported the sanctuary and understand that marine sanctuaries have a positive effect on fish populations.
A study released just last month in the Journal of Science found a significant positive effect on commercial fishing at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, northwest of Hawaii, the largest marine protected area in the world. Specifically, the study documented a 50% increase in yellow fin catch and a 10% increase in bigeye tuna catch just outside of the monument’s boundaries. Studies have also found improved fish populations off the coast of California.
Violet Sage Walker: I would like to make sure that we separate out that there are sustainable fishermen and sustainable fisheries who do not oppose marine sanctuaries, who support science-based responsible use of our oceans and protections. There are people who will generally oppose conservation efforts. And here locally, this idea that we are somehow imposing our will or the federal government's will on local fishermen is absolutely nonsense because all the fishermen fish in national marine sanctuaries currently.
Ever since the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has been in operation, the fishing in the sanctuary, commercial fishing has gone up in quantity, in value and price per pound. And so, every year that it's been in operation, the fishing and the quality of fish coming out of the sanctuary is improving.
Jennifer Errick: Paul Michel emphasizes that this line of opposition is a moot point because marine sanctuaries don't place any restrictions on the fishing industry.
Paul Michel: We don't regulate fishing and don't see a need to do so. It was not even something that was brought up in public comment. Sanctuaries essentially, if you look at it, they're kind of like a fishing park because they don't regulate fishing, but sanctuaries protect the ecosystem to allow for a vibrant and viable fishery, both recreational and commercial.
Jennifer Errick: Walker notes another big reason why Tribal engagement in the process would only help the industry.
Violet Sage Walker: Chumash people love to eat fish.
Jennifer Errick: Right now, public comment is officially closed. As soon as next month, however, NOAA will release a series of formal documents, including a draft management plan, a draft environmental impact statement, and proposed boundaries and regulations, and the public will be able to weigh in on all of it.
Paul Michel: We have gone through the thousands and thousands of comments. We have a team of writers that's drafting a draft management plan that'll have maybe 10 different action plans within it. We're going to push to have that all out for public review by the end of this calendar year. And then we'll do another round of public comment on those draft documents.
Jennifer Errick: For those who want to follow the ongoing process more closely, Violet Sage Walker's coalition of advocates have a website, chumashsanctuary.org where people can get more information and sign up for email updates on the public comment periods and other news. That’s C-H-U-M-A-S-H sanctuary.org. We’ll include that link in the show notes.
I mentioned to Michel that Walker had felt bad his team had to go through all those thousands of comments, and she had wondered if she should send flowers. He responds without hesitation.
Paul Michel: Absolutely. I'll take some flowers from Violet.
Jennifer Errick: But then after we chat a bit longer, he reconsiders.
Paul Michel: Instead of flowers, she could just send me some fish.
Jennifer Errick: Walker certainly hopes the joint efforts ultimately mean there will be more fish to offer. She again brings her family's longer view to the work.
Violet Sage Walker: My father coined this term thrivability. He always said that we should get rid of sustainability, and we should stop using that word, because we don't want to sustain the 95% loss of large fish species and all the endangered and threatened animals. We should not sustain that. We should go back to thinking about thrivability and about building the healthiest ecosystem for all these animals.
In just in my generation, in less than 40 years, we can no longer find steelhead and the coho salmon in our creeks. We can no longer drink the water coming out of our creeks. I was born and raised up in the Avila area, and we drank water from the creek in the backyard. I mean, you just can't do that anymore.
Jennifer Errick: Walker emphasizes that over the past year, the Chumash people have lost many of their elders. And that over the course of the past four decades, those elders made the significance of her preservation work clear.
Violet Sage Walker: We're going to be losing this whole generation of elders. And the one thing that they've done is they've trained us to keep doing the work and keep fighting to protect our sites and our culture. And that's the difference between us and them is they'll be gone. Politicians, like, local electeds, they will be gone, and we will still be here, saying the same thing.
Jennifer Errick: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Episode 12, “Making Things Whole,” was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher and Bev Stanton.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer.
Learn more about the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary at chumashsanctuary.org.
Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at thesecretlivesofparks.org.
For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations with more than 1.6 million members and supporters. And NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.
And we're proud of it too.
You can join the fight to preserve places like the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Park. Learn more and join us npca.org.