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Portraits of the Central Coast Blog

David Dewey

David Dewey watercololor 18x24

David Dewey watercololor 18x24

Looking offshore from the Santa Barbara and Ventura coasts, the most prominent feature on the seascape is Santa Cruz Island. Many sailors and adventurers hear the call to take a closer look at the island. Dave Dewey answered that call.  “There was a small notice in the Audubon Society newsletter looking for volunteers to work on Santa Cruz Island – I started in 1982.”  He has worked on the island in numerous roles since that time, accepting the job of ranch manager in 2004.

Dave holds the unique position of maintaining this historic ranch and sharing its history, which has included wine making, and sheep and cattle ranching. It still requires a lot of work to hold a sense of history intact and to build roads into the future. When he first came to the island, Dave remembers working in the upper central valley, “the hills were covered with cattle, beautiful fields grew in the valley, and across the valley were pine forests. I instantly fell in love with the island.”

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of California’s eight Channel Islands at about 96 square miles. Major topographic features include two parallel mountain ranges running east-west, which reach over 2400’ in elevation at Mount Diablo and 1500’ at Sierra Blanca. The protected central valley is home to a compound of ranch buildings, including a chapel and historic winery.

By agreement with Carey Stanton, a former owner of the island, The Nature Conservancy acquired an interest in the island in the late 1970s, and with his death in 1987, his entire island estate passed to TNC.The east end of the island is managed by the National Park Service. “Dr. Stanton’s mandate was to have the island kept close to its natural state.” Over the millennia, the island has been occupied by the Chumash Indians, held by the Spanish and Mexican governments, and with California statehood, held by a series of ranching interests.

In recent years, as the ranching era has come to a close, island managers have directed the removal of cattle, sheep, and pigs, actively encouraging the restoration of native plants. Island ecosystems are fragile and change dramatically with the introduction of new species. The Channel Islands are often referred to as California’s Galapagos Islands. They are relatively isolated environments, full with nature’s unique wonders. However, their private world can be easily decimated by foreign species of plants and animals.

When Dewey first came to Santa Cruz Island,  many hillsides were largely barren as a result of decades of sheep and cattle grazing (mostly by the sheep). The Santa Cruz Island Company was formed by a group of investors in 1869, bringing thousands of sheep to the island, adding to earlier sheep ranching operations. “I’ve seen photos from the 1860s – it was pretty bare.”

“What I’m fascinated with is the change. There’s been a lot of change on the island.” Dewey has witnessed the island’s near devastation and its climb back to its native state. “It’s been 25 years since the sheep an

Dewey is originally from Northern San Diego County, and observes that today, “every place I hiked decades ago is already developed.” In contrast, Santa Cruz Island remains, “a beautiful native spot.” “The biggest threat to California is sprawl and development.” Dewey appreciates the conservation-minded landowners including, “the cattle owners who have large acreages.”   Often it is these ranches that have staved off urban development, and eventually become environmental preserves, such as the Sedgwick Reserve in Santa Ynez.  These preserves are wonderful examples of how our cultures are always intertwined. Our ranching industry links us to our history, our educational/academic system and to environmentalism.

Walking through the island’s central valley, he describes the ranch, “We are in a historic area here. Many of the ranch buildings date to between 1888 and 1891. This land included vineyards during Prohibition.” Edwin Stanton (Carey Stanton’s father) purchased a majority of the island in 1937, during the Depression, and slowly changed it  to a cattle operation. All of the cattle and lumber came over on boats.” Some things about the island have never changed. “Everything today also has to come over on boats. Sometimes it’s windy, and you can’t get off the island: they cancel the boats.” This adds to the challenges of island life.

A Rancher’s Life

Prior to moving to Santa Cruz Island, Dewey managed a farm in northern California. While studying for a master’s degree in botany at Chico State, he worked on a nearby farm growing kiwi fruit. “Kiwi was new to California then.” And it proved to be a highly successful crop. Dave managed that farm, “one of the largest [kiwi] orchards in the state,” for three decades. Dewey knows first-hand what it means when he says a rancher is a jack of all trades. “I run into people all the time who find a niche in their work; they are specialists. I’m a generalist. There is always something different [to work on]. I fit in here.”

This life experience has given him the credentials to work on one of the most unique “ranches” in the state of California. When he first came to the island he was involved in mending fences, “sheep-proof fences,” as part of the feral sheep removal process. Even with all the livestock now removed, major challenges of maintaining the ranch facilities continue. “Recently we had a couple of inches of rain; it washed out some of the roads.” The rain also brought rapid growth of weeds and grasses. “In addition to repairing roads, constant mowing is needed due to the fire danger.” 

The Nature Conservancy

“The TNC manages about two-thirds of the island.” Dewey notes that only two people have the major responsibility for managing this part of the island. The other person he refers to is his friend and neighbor Dr. Lyndal Laughrin, who runs the University of California research station. Upkeep of the ranch facilities is just one aspect of Dewey’s job. “I facilitate maintaining access for the people restoring foxes, bald eagles, and plants. We’re trying to restore the island to the way it was before European settlers arrived.” Native plant and animal management is a Sisyphean task, “invasives are an ongoing battle on the island.”

“A lot of people come to the island who are studying all kinds of problems.” These visiting scientists include botanists, wildlife biologists, archaeologists, and geologists, to name a few. Occasionally, at the end of the day, Dewey can be found sharing a meal with visiting researchers, discussing the ongoing challenges of their various restoration projects. “It’s a good laboratory.”

Dewey is also knowledgeable about challenges faced in other parts of the country with feral livestock and invasive species. The management of plant and wildlife restoration on Santa Cruz Island provides models for other areas. “It’s fascinating to see the foxes coming back. The hillsides looked completely different 30 years ago. They were completely bare. There’s been a lot of success here.”

“We’re working hard to keep this [island] not as when The Nature Conservancy found it, but better.” In the end, the history of Stanton Ranch is two-fold. Through the early years, it helped to support our California population through ranch products, such as sheep and cattle. However, these species nearly brought the island to total environmental degradation, bringing native species to the brink of extinction. And yet, through great insight, Dr. Carey Stanton left this ranch, and the majority of this treasured island to be studied and preserved in perpetuity. Between the control of the major stakeholders and the investigations of outstanding scientists, are the men and women who are mending fences and managing the day to day work. 

These are the people who contribute to the history of our region and help to create a better future for our communities.

 By Katherine Bradford