California Island Awash in Politics

By Erica Werner
Associated Press
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- Brush-covered and wind-swept, accessible only by boat or plane, Santa Rosa Island seems worlds removed from the crowded Southern California coastline -- let alone Washington, D.C.

Yet the 53,000-acre public island 40 miles from Santa Barbara is in the middle of a political tugging match between a House committee chairman, the National Park Service and congressional Democrats.

Under a federal court settlement in place for nearly a decade, private deer and elk hunts staged on the island must end by 2011 and the nonnative game must be removed.

But not if Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has his way: The Armed Services Committee chairman wants to keep the trophy animals on the island and allow military veterans to hunt them. "This is a wonderful opportunity for paralyzed veterans and severely disabled veterans to have an opportunity for a high-quality outdoor experience," he said.

The plan has drawn protests from the Park Service and Democratic lawmakers, who said hunting blocks public access and interferes with indigenous plants and animals. "What we need to be focusing on are the purposes for which national parks were set aside, and hunting is not one of those purposes," said Russell Galipeau, superintendent of Channel Islands National Park.

Hunter's plan, which would mandate that the deer and elk stay on the island indefinitely, was approved by the House in May as part of a major defense programs bill. A version of the measure approved by the Senate two weeks ago does not contain the provision, and California's Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, hope they can keep it out of the final bill.

A 30-minute plane ride over the Pacific Ocean from the mainland, Santa Rosa Island is a breathtaking vision of unspoiled beaches and low-lying cliffs dotted with cormorants and pelicans. A stand of Torrey Pines -- the island is one of only two locations for the trees in the world -- hugs a hillside, and endangered manzanita plants cover patches of ground.

On one side of the island -- the second-largest of five in the Channel Islands National Park -- an archaeology professor is studying well-preserved cliff formations. Elsewhere, cages hold endangered island foxes that the Park Service is trying to breed to increase their numbers.

Although the Park Service officials who want the deer and elk removed acknowledge that the animals can make a stunning sight for hikers and campers in this wild environment, they say the deer and elk trample native vegetation, and fawns and carrion left behind after the hunts attract golden eagles that prey on the island foxes.

During the August-to-December hunting season, more than three-quarters of the island is off limits to the public for safety reasons.

Hunter has never been to the island and said that to avoid conflict-of-interest concerns he'll never go. He said hunting isn't much of a nuisance because the island has so few visitors -- about 5,000 a year. Compared with the herds of cattle that once occupied the island, the deer and elk are hardly invasive, he added. "This isn't like importing a giraffe."

Hunter's legislation doesn't say how the herds would be managed after the 2011 deadline, or how the hunts -- which cost $1,800 to $17,000 -- would be made affordable for veterans. He said it would not be difficult to run free hunts at no cost to taxpayers, which his opponents dispute.

Doug Warren, an official with Paralyzed Veterans of America, said Santa Rosa would provide a uniquely contained environment for disabled veterans, and questioned the need to remove the animals. "It adds so much to have them here," he said. "Otherwise, what are you going to look at?"

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