Santa Barbara County has historically been an arena for environmentalists to battle county planners, private developers and oil companies. This school year has been no different.

Local environmental groups, students and community members have dedicated their time, money and energy to preserve and protect Santa Barbara’s environment.

Black Gold

In April, the Dept. of the Interior decided not to appeal the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision requiring the federal government to submit 36 offshore oil and gas leases to the state for review. This reinforces the power of the California Coastal Commission to review the environmental soundness of any oil leases approved for development by the Minerals Management Service.

“This is a victory for California separate from any environmental issues,” Coastal Commissioner Pedro Nava said at the time of the decision. “This law provides that California’s right to protect its coastline will be respected.”

Soon after this victory, environmentalists received word that federal regulators cut back inspections of oil platforms off the California coast from several times a week to once a month.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service cut the inspections last November, but did not provide notification of the change until last week. Prior to the cutbacks, the 23 oil platforms in the channel were inspected weekly with additional unannounced inspections monthly. Now inspection occurs only once per month with unannounced inspections every three months.

“We’re extremely concerned about the cutbacks and the way it was handled,” said Linda Krop, executive director of the Environmental Defense Center. “It was an ongoing approach and the inspection really does enhance safety. It used to be that if something went wrong on a Tuesday, we knew someone would be there to check it out by Saturday.”

In early May, legislation introduced by Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-35th District) requiring oil produced in state waters to be transported via pipeline, rather than barge or tanker, passed the state Assembly.

“This measure is necessary to protect California’s coast from the potential of a devastating oil spill that could destroy our local economy,” Jackson said. “We must do what can be done to prevent such a disaster off the Central Coast.”

Currently, Venoco is the only company drilling off the California coast that does not use pipelines to transport oil from the offshore platform to shore refinery. The bill does not impact existing drilling operations, but requires new or expanded ones to use pipelines to transport oil. Unlike tankers, pipelines can be shut off if they rupture.

A three-year audit of Venoco’s aging oil facilities was completed in 2002. Venoco was required to inspect and replace much of the piping, upgrade the fire suppression system, upgrade mechanical facilities on Platform Holly and have more comprehensive and correct staff training.

The audit, conducted by the county’s Energy Division and the Systems Safety and Reliability Review Commission, began in 1999 in response to a large release of hydrogen sulfide gas in 1998 caused by faults in the aging pipelines.

“Shutting Venoco down last year and performing these audits, along with the necessary follow-up actions, has significantly improved the safety of Venoco’s operations,” 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall said.

Kicked Off the Island

In April, the Channel Islands National Park published its plan for the elimination of non-native species from Santa Cruz Island. Pigs introduced to the island by humans have been infringing on the ecological niche occupied by the island’s native foxes.

“Our mission is to restore the island,” said Yvonne Menard, spokeswoman for the Channel Islands Park Service. “If we can divide the island into zones and clear the pigs from one zone after the next, we can stop the destruction of the island’s natural resources.”

Menard said the elimination of the pigs would also make the island less attractive to golden eagles, resulting in a more hospitable environment for the native bald eagle.

The restoration process also calls for controlled burning of fennel plant thickets, which Menard said is an invasive, dominant species. The burning is scheduled to begin in 2004.

Channel Islands National Park Superintendent Russell Galipeau recently said that scientists are finding substantial recovery of rare seabirds, mice, lizards and salamanders on Anacapa Island following the eradication of rats.

“We have detected increases in the number of birds visiting nesting colonies ranging from 58 percent to more than two times higher when compared to the number of detections we recorded per night in any of the previous years,” said Thomas Hamer, of Hamer Environmental.

Non-native rats are responsible for an estimated 40 to 60 percent of bird and reptile extinction in the world.

“The long-term benefits of rat eradication on Anacapa Island are enormous for the conservation of one of North America’s most distinctive ecosystems,” said George Fenwick, American Bird Conservancy president.

Tarzan Lives in I.V.

In February, the county Public Works Dept. removed two trees from the walkway on El Embarcadero because the roots had made the sidewalk impassable for bikes and skateboards and dangerous for pedestrians. When the Ficus benjamina on the corner of Pardall Road and Embarcadero del Norte was also marked for removal, students climbed to the top in order to protect it.

“I don’t want to see this tree get cut down,” said Jonathan Morse, senior geography and global studies major and leader of the tree-climbing movement. “I don’t think people knew about the decisions that were being made for this tree.”

The students were in the tree for one week. They climbed down only when county representatives agreed that the pruning of the tree and its roots would abide by the approved American National Standards for Tree Care and that an arborist would be present at all times to supervise the operation.

“They never intended to cut the tree down. They just need to level out the sidewalk, following the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Derek Johnson, I.V. Recreation and Park District general manager.

The county still plans to remove five other trees located on Camino Pescadero, Pasado Road, Trigo Road and Seville Road in order to install new sidewalks.

Plover Lovin’

The snowy plover breeding season is currently in full effect and volunteers are spending the daylight hours protecting the endangered species.

Plover nests appeared at Coal Oil Point in late February this year, and docent program director Jennifer Stroh expects the season to be a success.

“The number of nests we have right now is the total number of successful nests last year, and we’re only a few months into the season,” Stroh said.

In the 2002 breeding season, 14 chicks were fledged from nine nests. Since the plovers return to the site where they hatched to breed, these 14 chicks should return again this year to breed.

Despite the hard work of the plover docents, the overall population is still declining. There are currently only 1,200-1,500 plovers. Approximately 200 plovers spend the winter at Sands Beach and Coal Oil Point.

Rocky Roads Ahead

In December 2002, the county applied for an emergency permit from the California Coastal Commission to haul in hundreds of rocks to form a revetment on the western end of Goleta Beach to protect against erosion.

Members of the Surfrider Foundation and other environmental groups argue that rock revetments and other proposed solutions, such as seawalls, jetties and groins, breach the California Coastal Act and destroy natural coastline.

“Because Goleta Beach is located at the mouth of a slough, the sands are always shifting. The permanent structures should be moved to let the beach erode and fill back in the summer,” said Tom Phillips of the Surfrider Foundation.

The fate of Goleta Beach is still undetermined.