Perry Van Houten
The Ojai Valley got its first look at the new Ventura River Steelhead Preserve last Friday at a sneak peek party hosted by the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy and attended by more than 250 guests that included OVLC members and their friends, along with state and local officials.
The new 45-acre preserve for the federally endangered fish was purchased on June 17 and includes one and one-third miles of the Ventura River beside the historic Hollingsworth Ranch on Santa Ana Road.
The preserve provides perhaps the best habitat on the entire river for the Southern California steelhead, which rely on the cool, deep, shaded pools on this section of the river as a staging area on their migration to the ocean. It also adds another mile to the roughly six miles of the river already preserved.
It’s all part of a larger plan “to protect a continuous greenway from Los Padres Forest all the way down to the estuary on the Ventura River,” says project director Bob Thiel of the California Coastal Conservancy. The organization stepped in to provide $500,000 toward the acquisition of the Steelhead Preserve, a key component of the Ventura River Parkway Project, which will some day include open space habitat, recreational trails and natural floodplains.
It’s a huge step in protecting the entire 16 miles of the Ventura River, and a rare acquisition, especially in Southern California, says Mary Larson of the California Department of Fish and Game. Her work was crucial in securing most of the $2 million needed to purchase the property. “It’s a vital part of the river and means so much to the fish and wildlife,” she said. Larson, who first visited the ranch in 2002 and worked with the previous owners on a bank stabilization project, called the purchase a win for both the community and river wildlife, providing “more space for the critters to exist.”
OVLC executive director Greg Gamble says it was the trust’s project partners like Thiel and Larson who proved so critical in purchasing the land and old stone buildings, and gave particular credit to Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett for “greasing the skids of county government.”
“This is certainly a joyful day,” said Bennett, “when you can permanently protect something on the river.”
It’s not just the steelhead that will feel the benefit of the new preserve, but also 29 other rare, threatened or endangered species. The preserve also offers historic buildings, which will be used as a conservation center, hosting scientists, schoolchildren and the public. Gamble told the OVN he thinks it will be a year or two before the preserve is ready for public use, as an additional $250,000 is needed to build a new access road, trails, signage and fencing and to make the necessary modifications to the buildings and landscaping. “It’s like we have a shiny new car, but still need the keys,” he said.
Another matter still unresolved in the preservation of the river is the removal of the Matilija Dam, which Gamble calls “a complicated issue” due to problems like money and the effects the silt buildup behind the dam could have on the river and Lake Casitas. “The main vision,” he says, “is connecting people to a healthy river.”
Music for the evening’s festivities was provided by local bands The Zen Cats and The Three Rivers Band, featuring OVLC’s Brian Stark on bass. The Ojai Vineyard donated wine for the party.
But the real stars of the show were the steelhead themselves. A handful of party-goers were lucky enough to spot two large fish, one of them almost 2 feet long, in one of the deep, shaded pools.
“They’re here,” said Gamble, “and we’re so excited to be able to protect this special place.”
The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy is a nonprofit land trust which has been working to preserve the valley’s views, trails, water and wildlife for nearly 25 years. It has protected roughly 2,000 acres in the area, which is about two-thirds the size of the city of Ojai.