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History of the Channel Islands National Park

The National Park’s recommended goal is to " keep large sections of primitive country from the influence of destructive civilization … to detect and defeat attempts to exploit commercially the resources of the National Parks " according to past National Park Service Director Albright in 1933. It was his nephew, Stephen T. Albright who was given the responsibility for applying his uncle’s recommendations to the Channel Islands National Park in the 1980s, nearly fifty years after the first efforts to form the park began.


When Mexico signed the treaty of Guadalupe de Hidalgo with the U.S. Government in 1845, California began the process of annexation to the United States. But the issue of non-mainland holdings was not resolved. Some of the Channel Islands were mentioned in the Treaty, but not all, creating a legal controversy over island title and ownership for many generations. The islands that were mentioned in the treaty were arranged as land grants to individuals prior to the treaty’s signing, and the n U.S. courts examined the land grantee’s claim to ownership. Had they settled on the island ? Had they built a shelter ? Was agriculture or ranching taking place ? These are a few of the qualifications that were required in order for the US Court to accept the land grants as valid titles to the land holdings assigned by the Mexican government.

In 1872, the first National Park in the united States was established at Yellowstone thanks to the foresight of Congressional leaders. This designation was motivated by representatives who may not have been able to visit Yellowstone, but who shared in the majesty of its grandeur as revealed in the large painted canvases brought to Washington for an exhibit of the work of painter Thomas Duran. Camp Internet visited the recent Duran exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington DC, and was impressed by the powerful atmosphere of natural beauty and dramatic landscapes Duran captured in his paintings - some six by six feet canvases that allow one to become absorbed in the imagery. It is understandable how these paintings influenced legislators to designate a natural preserve for the first time in American history.

Then in 1891, Congress enacted the Forest Reserve Act which separated conservation of forests from the National Parks. The President was given the right to create, be personal proclamation, permanent forests. Parks, on the other hand, were established only under the authority of Congress.

By 1895, ownership of the Channel Islands became a nationally debated issue in an effort to prevent foreign interests from laying claim to any island off the California coast. In 1896, President Grover Cleveland sent a survey team to San Miguel Island - notably NOT in the treaty of Guadalupe de Hidalgo, and not under a land grant. There had been a threat that Britain was interested in occupying the island, and this motivated the American government to take rightful ownership of the island. In 1903, the U.S. Department of Commerce took over the Lighthouse Bureau, just as the American public was becoming aware of conservation issues. In 1909, President Taft designated San Miguel as a lighthouse reservation under U.S. ownership.

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20th Century

Growing popular interest in preserving American natural and cultural resources around the turn of the 20th century lead to a legislative effort to preserve our American cultural resources. The Antiquities Act of 1906 was passed and forbade disturbance of ruins and archeological remains on federal lands. The Antiquities Act also allowed the President, by proclamation, to designate National Monuments. President Theodore Roosevelt further backed the idea by establishing a 41 state Conservation Commission in 1909.

President Taft had argued for the creation of a National Park Service during his term, but it took until 1916 before Congress to create the National Park Service as a means to conserve the nation’s cultural and natural treasures. The legislation was signed by President Woodrow Wilson.

Meanwhile, out on the Channel Islands, the Lighthouse Bureau oversaw the smaller islands - Anacapa, Santa Barbara and San Miguel. The Bureau chief began suggesting transfer of Anacapa and Santa Barbara to the National Parks in 1932. The National Park Service then ordered a report on the eight Channel Islands for consideration as National Park sites. The report concluded the islands ‘ had many attractive features and that the group of islands taken as a whole presented possibilities as an oceanic or marine park of national character and importance’. The report recommended National Park status ‘ not on the basis of land features but upon the island’s marine features.’

Unfortunately for the future of the Channel Islands National Park, the 1937 visit of the Park Service’s Assistant Director, Dr. H.C. Bryant, was not favorable. He was taken to the privately owned Santa Cruz Island to view the more rugged Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands by binoculars, and concluded that he found them desolate and uninviting. He did not recommend them for National Park status.

Fortunately a biologist from the University of Colorado had been collecting specimens on the islands and gathering data from other scientists for years previous to the Assistant Director’s visit. Biologist Theodore D.S. Cockerell provided testimony that helped counteract the Assistant Director’s negative report. In the same year, 1937, he published an article detailing the natural history of San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Anacapa Islands. The results of his article were soon to prove that one man’s article voice for preserving the islands can have far reaching consequences.

In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Channel islands National monument which included Santa Barbara and Anacapa Islands. Soon scientists from Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and the Superintendent of Monuments visited the two islands to launch further research and conservation efforts. The Monument Supervisor, E.T. Scoyen personally explored the islands under his jurisdiction and wrote to the National Park Service Director that he " had never spent such an interesting day from the wildlife standpoint in his life " and added " Boy ! We’ve got something out there in the Channel Islands. " in May of 1941.

In August of 1949, a new Superintendent of Monuments visited San Miguel and witnessed thousands of sea lions and sea elephants. The new Superintendent, John R. White, foresaw the importance of protecting not only the islands, but also the waters around them to prevent fishermen from shooting the seals and sea lions ho were considered a nuisance to sport and commercial fishing. And in the same year, president Harry Truman expanded the monument boundaries to one nautical mile around the two islands.


By the early 1960s, public interest in and visits to the National Parks across the country had doubled, yet staffing and services were receiving no additional government funding. In this deteriorating state, public outrage grew and between voter complaints, and negative press, he National Park Service issued a ten year plan called Mission 66.

In February of 1961, President Kennedy sent a clear message to Congress " America’s health, morale, and culture have long benefited from our national parks and forests but they are not now adequate to meet the needs of a fast-growing and more mobile population". Kennedy assigned the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, to conduct a survey to determine where additional parks should be proposed. This lead to public editorials in California papers urging congress to designate the Channel Islands as a National Park. Newspaper editors from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara got together to plan a campaign that would see Santa Barbara, Anacapa, Santa Rosa and San Miguel joined under the National Park Service as a new public park site.

In 1962, Navy and National Park personnel began planning transfer of San Miguel to National Park control. San Miguel had been used for bombing target practice during World War II, and was no longer needed as a strategic training site. Environmentalists were also pushing for the Navy to relinquish San Nicholas and San Clemente islands for Park sites. By 1967, the Channel Islands National monument headquarters opened an office in Oxnard, much closer to the Islands than the San Diego Monument Headquarters had been.

The Park is Formed in 1980

It took until 1980 for the bill to finally be passed and the result was that government-owned San Miguel, Anacapa and Santa Barbara would become a National Park, and funding would be provided to purchase Santa Rosa and portions of Santa Cruz from private citizens then holding title to those islands, The government did not include San Clemente or San Nicholas in the park site; and Catalina remains privately owned.

Opponents to the National Park designation did speak out. They were either land owners who wanted to se the islands privately developed for recreation, or were scientists and environmentalists who wanted to minimize recreational use of the islands by the public to protect the natural setting.

When the bill finally passed, it was an amazing joint force of democrat and republican party efforts that made it happen. Republican Robert Lagomarisno, from a ranching and brewing family on the California Channel coast in Ventura County, introduced the bill in the House of Representatives. California Democrat Alan Cranston then urged it through the Senate to pass the bill with both House and Senate approval. The bill was signed by President Jimmy Carter, March 5th, 1980.