The Winchester Canyon Gun Club of Santa Barbara is once again aiming to obtain a long-term permit in order to keep its current home – a patch of land nestled within Los Padres National Forest that borders Chumash Indian ruins.
Numerous attempts by the club over the last five years to obtain a long-term permit from the Los Padres National Forest Service – the organization that currently owns the land beneath the gun club’s facilities – were repeatedly denied, primarily by the efforts of local environmental and historical activist groups. These organizations have argued that the club’s proximity to the site of the sacred Chumash “Husahkiw” wind caves degrades the spiritual and physical integrity of the land.
While the forest service considers the fate of the club, the WCGC has solicited public opinion on the matter through a letter sent to interested parties. The period for public comment ends Saturday.
Currently, forest service officials have proposed offering the club another short-term special use permit while it conducts a National Environmental Policy Act analysis. The NEPA analysis, which is designed to determine the environmental impact of a project, will mandate what changes the gun club must make in order to receive a 20-year permit.
According to the letter sent from the forest service and signed by District Ranger Cindy Chojnacky, the club’s continued existence would do more than benefit just its members.
“[Approving the permit] will allow the WCGC to continue to provide a place for local law enforcement and military affiliates to conduct firearm training,” the letter states.
Club members, who would not speak on the record due to the matter’s sensitive nature, said they want to work closely with the Chumash themselves on the issue.
The club, located off of West Camino Cielo Road atop the Santa Ynez Range, has a membership of 700 shooting enthusiasts, and hosts over 2,000 visitors every year, including members of the UCSB Gun Club. Its various ranges are situated across 85 acres of Los Padres land, which lies just 600 yards from the “Husahkiw” wind caves, a site which has long interested scholars and naturalists due to the its unique acoustic phenomena, pigmented Chumash cave paintings and natural amphitheatre.
Last June, the forest service agreed to grant the club a 20-year special-use permit that was contingent upon the club implementing certain modifications – which included the permanent closure of the ranges closest to the wind cave and a “rehabilitation” plan for the land that would include the removal of lead from the soil.
The club also agreed to suspend operations during solstices and equinoxes to accommodate religious services at the Chumash site on those days.
The agreement provoked outrage from some locals, including members of the Coalition to Save the Husahkiw Wind Caves and their supporters, and the decision to approve of the permit was subsequently overturned by the United States Department of Agriculture in October.
At the time, Coalition Co-founder Monique Sonoquie argued that the presence of the gun club so close to the caves violated the sacred nature of the site, regardless of whether they operated during religious ceremonies.
Robert Vance, a UCSB alumnus and member of the WCGC Board of Directors, said that the process of appeals has been ongoing since the club’s last long-term permit expired in 2002.
He said that the club has since been operating under a series of one-year permits, and looks forward to entering into a more stable agreement with the forest service.