The Health of Channel Islands National Park

The light is bleak. The sun has yet to lift its way above the horizon. The world is still. A calm ocean breeze lazily winds over the hills and sweeps across the tall grass and sweet fennel. Small island red foxes, no bigger than a house cat, slowly emerge from their warm dens to greet the new day. An orchestra of bird songs, soft and quiet, barely audible, fills the air in accidental harmony. As the sun slivers into view, the music begins a long crescendo of calls. Monolithic cliffs overlook the ocean in stark contrast to the adjacent rolling fields and riverbeds. It is pristine. It is unmistakably nature, as nature intended.

This is Santa Cruz Island. One of five islands in the Channel Islands National Park system 14 miles off the coast of southern California.

Bill Faulkner has an affinity for these islands like few others. He’s been a park ranger at this park for 23 years—stationed at different times on all five islands. His skin is tan and his eyes have a permanent squint from years under the sun. The ranger badge on his uniform is well polished, but scuffed with age and use. His words are long. They hang in the air a moment longer than most city folk. He doesn’t boast an accent, but you might guess he’s from the south. Turns out he’s from Boston.

“None of the parks are getting as much funds as they need,” he says. “We are all struggling with maintenance backlogs and staffing shortages. For years we have done more with less. And now we’re starting to do less with even less.”

Faulkner is talking about the steady decline in National Park budgets over the past few years. For the majority of the history of the National Parks they have enjoyed a steady increase in employees and budget. But in the past few years, both those numbers have been dwindling. The National Park Service budget reports show that more than $6.5 million and 500 employees have been cut since 2009.

With these cuts, it’s difficult to continue the biological programs national parks are so dedicated to. Faulkner relates the wide range of programs that the Channel Islands have in place. A new program reintroduces bald eagles and peregrine falcons to the islands. Check-dams and erosion control matting are being installed in badland areas where deep runoffs have destroyed plant and animal habitats. A nursery raises seedlings to reestablish native plant species that help keep the soil in place.

The Channel Islands actually boasts the fastest endangered animal species recovery in the history of the Endangered Species Act enacted 41 years ago. The island fox, found nowhere else in the world, had been reduced to a startling low number. On Santa Cruz Island the count was as low as 15 individual foxes as short as five years ago. With the help of the park rangers and these programs, over 2000 now flourish throughout the national park.

Faulkner says success stories like the island fox are why National Parks are so important.

“We pulled them back from the brink of extinction,” he says. “That’s why these islands are more than just a pretty place. It takes a lot of work to keep them stable, to just keep the extinction from happening, and the non-native species from getting out there.”

Campfire programs are common throughout most National Parks. These can include education, resource information, history lessons and more. Some of these programs may now be threatened due to staffing shortages. Already some of the educational outreach programs that Faulkner has spearheaded at the Channel Islands have been cut. He says they just don’t have the staff anymore.

These cuts aren’t just affecting the park services. Island Packers is the lone concessionaire that charters visitors back and forth from the mainland to the islands via boat. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the new boat outside the storefront, but the company has been struggling to coexist with the shortcomings of the park.

A large, 150-person catamaran rests in the Ventura Harbor outside Island Packers, waiting to be boarded by day hikers and campers bound for the islands. The boat is the most recent addition to Island Packers’ fleet, its white and blue paint is still new and it reflects the calm waters of the harbor. Cherryl Connally is a partner and the office manager for Island Packers and says that when park service suffers, the entire Channel Islands community feels the effects.

“Everybody has challenges with business,” she says, “but the government does affect our operations. We try and work around it and think outside the box and create new operations.”

Connally says the park has been lacking funds for adequate staff for years now. Often those shortfalls directly hurt the family business. Not too long ago pelicans began nesting on hiking trails on Santa Barbara Island and there weren’t enough rangers to prevent it. So Island Packers wasn’t allowed to shuttle any visitors to the island for three months, which directly affected the income of their business.

“There’s a lot of things that they don’t have money for,” she says. “We have been in business for 45 years so a lot of these things have been an ongoing experience for us. We would’ve been up about 40 percent this year if the park didn’t close down for two weeks. Now we’re down about 10 percent.”

Connally says she’s not happy with the financial restraints that have affected the park, and in turn affected her business in negative ways. But she understands what’s important to the company is forward thinking.

“We cooperate and work with them the best we can. It is our livelihood for our employees and our company.”

Park ranger Bill Faulkner can relate. This park is his livelihood too. He says people need a break from the routine to experience National Parks. It’s part of the health of the American people to be mentally and physically healthy in the outdoors. Parks like the Channel Islands, that are kept natural, are pivotal to that health.

“The Channel Islands are only 14 miles out, but it can feel like its a thousand miles away when you go out there—because it’s so different. People like that. And that’s what we do.”