‘We’re so close’: After decades, Cotoni-Coast Dairies land inches closer to public opening

An aerial view looking out towards some of the Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

By fall of 2021, the long-awaited public opening of the 5,800-acre Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument is expected to happen. Miles of new trails, picnic areas, and beautiful vistas will be available to the public for the first time.

Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument, the 5,800-acre nature expanse eight miles north of Santa Cruz, came one step closer to opening to the public Friday, as the California Coastal Commission approved the federal Bureau of Land Management’s use plan for the area.

Commissioners voted unanimously that the BLM’s plan is consistent with the California Coastal Act. But they added a condition that archery hunting, a controversial part of the plan, be moved to the second phase of the monument’s opening.

“The planning process has been many years in the making,” said Ben Blom, the BLM Central Coast field manager. “We’ve gone through this exhaustive process over 22 years to try to get people out to the property, and we’re so close. It’s a spectacular place and people deserve to be able to see it.”

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Indeed, Friday’s vote culminated an exercise in bureaucracy in which the 12-member commission — an independent, quasi-judicial state agency that regulates land use along the Pacific coast — held sway over the land, which is owned by the federal government.

Now that the land use plan is approved, Blom said he expects his agency will finalize it this winter, and hopefully break ground on the infrastructure required to allow the monument to open for recreational use this summer. If everything works out, he’s optimistic it could be open to everyone by the end of 2021. Miles of new trails, picnic areas, and beautiful vistas will be available to the public for the first time.

Subdivisions had been planned for the land in the 1990s, but a consortium of conservation groups intervened and bought it. The property was eventually transferred to the Trust for Public Land, and then to the BLM. In a high-profile and controversial move, President Obama designated the area a National Monument in 2017 — effectively paving the way to open the property to tourists and others — during the final month of his final term in office.

Ever since then, the BLM has been working to create a use plan that strikes a seemingly impossible balance between the competing needs for public access, wildlife and habitat conservation, preservation of cultural resources, and the interests of property owners and nearby residents.

The difficulty of achieving that balance was palpable in the coastal commission hearing, as over a dozen members of the public provided testimony, most of them in opposition or at least partial opposition to the plan.

National Monument
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Archery hunting — which was allowed in 40% of the total land area under the BLM plan — was one of the more controversial issues. Other sticking points were the location of parking lots, the allowance of electric-powered mountain bikes, and the impact of increased traffic on the Davenport area.

BLM officials insisted that the hunting would be limited to five weekends per year, with only two to four hunters per weekend. Currently there is no hunting allowed on any public land in Santa Cruz County.

Blom said this is largely because there’s very little federally managed land in the county. “I would say 99% of our public lands that we manage are open to hunting,” he said. “So it’s an exception to the rule to have public lands be closed to hunting.”

But this was the issue that the coastal commissioners were most concerned about, and so the plan was only approved with the condition that any hunting be moved to the second phase of the opening. Implementation of phase two will be dependent on effective recreation management under Phase 1. BLM is planning to open the monument in two phases in order to limit an immediate influx of people into land that has been largely human-free for decades, and to be able to monitor how their management practices are working.

But the issues of parking, electric mountain bikes and the “Four T’s” as they are commonly referred to in Davenport: Traffic, Trauma, Trash and Toilets, were left untouched, despite the many concerned residents who spoke out, including County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty.

Coonerty said he was “excited” about the monument being open to the public, but concerned about the impact of large numbers of people on the Davenport community, which is already stressed by increased visitors. “This is an area that has become increasingly popular as the 10 million people over the hill have found out about it,” he said. “But there’s no tourist infrastructure.”

The BLM also worked with the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, a group representing the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, who were the original inhabitants and caretakers of the land. There are several important cultural and archaeological Native American sites within the monument.
Sara French, the Interim Executive Director of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, said they were happy with the plan.

“Amah Mutsun has a close partnership with BLM,” Fry said. “We felt our voices were heard throughout the process, and we’re excited in particular that concern for Native American cultural resources will be included in the future of the monument.”

Despite the many challenges and controversies over how the land is opened and managed, a general sense of excitement that the monument will eventually be open and available for public use was a common theme in the commission meeting, and in Lookout’s conversations with interested parties.

“We’re looking forward to it being open, to use it ourselves,” Jonathan Wittwer, a lawyer and the president of the Friends of the North Coast, told Lookout. Wittwer spoke in the meeting in opposition to the BLM’s plan, urging the commission to consider moving one of the planned parking locations, and to ban hunting. “It’s a beautiful spot and the public should get to see it,” he said. He just wants to avoid the land being “loved to death.”

Now that the land use plan is approved, Blom said he expects his agency will finalize the plan this winter, and hopefully break ground this summer. If everything works out, he’s optimistic it could be open to everyone by the end of 2021.

“It’s public land owned by everybody,” he said. “We have a duty to open it up to the public.”