Safety concerns spark San Miguel Island closure

Safety concerns spark San Miguel Island closure

SAN MIGUEL—Travelers planning to visit San Miguel Island were turned away last month when Navy officials announced the island’s immediate closure due to safety concerns.

The popular boating and camping destination, owned by the U.S. Department of Defense and managed by the National Park Service, will remain closed through the rest of this year “due to recent concerns of possible unexploded ordnance,” according to Navy officials.

“The Navy is dedicated to the conservation of our national resources, of which the Channel Islands are a unique and critical piece,” Capt. Larry Vasquez, commanding officer of Naval Base Ventura County said in a statement.

“But the safety and well-being of National Parks Service personnel and those who visit San Miguel Island are our highest concern,” he continued. “We are working closely with our federal partners to ensure the park is a safe and inviting place to visit.”
Kimberly Gearhart, a spokeswoman for the Navy at Point Mugu, said safety concerns were sparked following a review implemented by the National Park Service in 2013, which sought island expansion for overnight visits.

“Once we started looking at the review and looking at the process, we realized this island has never properly been cleared after having been used for years as a bombing range in World War II,” she said. “What we don’t want is to expand the areas we haven’t accessed before and have someone get hurt.”

In January, park service workers discovered a “suspicious piece of metal,” which Gearhart said was determined not to be exploded ordnance from that time period. It was at that point when officials made the decision to consider a detailed risk assessment.

“We worked together with the parks service and requested this closure so we can go out there and do a proper risk assessment and then, based on that risk assessment, we’ll decide how to safely move forward in the future,” she said.

Gearhart said the process could involve several steps. Suggested initiatives include analyzing historical documentation, data bases, newspapers and period photographs to verify related military activity. The operation, which won’t require a grid search, will help the Navy determine which areas were used, as well as specific coordinates of impact sites. Flyovers and ground characterization procedures will also aid in the process.

Gearhart said, based on the results of the assessment, a cleanup or clearing process will follow to ensure safety.

“No one is allowed on the island at all,” she said. “We don’t control boating and we don’t control fishing—we don’t try to restrict that,” she said. “It’s not what the Navy does, but we’re concerned with the safety of those people setting foot on the island. We ask they do not dock or attempt to dock there.”

Gearhart added that standard security perimeter around most Navy yards requires boaters to stay at least 300 yards away from land.

Yvonne Menard, a spokesperson for the Channel Islands National Park, said those working for the National Park Service were surprised with the announcement.

“We heard about it a few days before it went public,” Menard said. “I think it’s important to know the National Parks Service is completely committed to ensuring the safety of our visitors. So we support the U.S. Navy in its quest to secure public safety.”
San Miguel is located 55 miles west of Ventura and averages about 1,000 visitors a year, with 200 to 250 of those being campers. The island contains roughly 27 miles of isolated coastline, housing more than 30,000 beach-dwelling animals. Menard said boaters land at Cuyler Harbor, the island’s solitary landing point.

“Visitor’s can go unescorted on the landing at Cuyler Harbor to the ranger station, which is adjacent to the camp grounds,” she said. “Any travel beyond that point is escorted.”

Cheryl Connally, co-owner of Island Packers, charters about 15 cruises, with an average of 80 travelers, to the island from May to October. She said her chartered catamaran takes roughly three hours to get to the island and her company typically offers two daytrips a year in September and October— the easiest time to land ashore.

“I was very surprised about the immediate notice that it’s closed now,” Connally said. “That was a bit of a surprise for Island Packers cruises. We learn to work with them as much as we can to maneuver around the closures. It’s unfortunate for our visitors that they won’t get to see the backcountry of the Channel Islands.”

Island Packers’ first trip was set for May 23 and was filled before the announcement was made. The company is offering full refunds to those who purchased charter tickets or have the option of choosing a different voyage.

“We had the Fourth of July weekend, too,” Connally said. “It’s going to be a bummer for those people. They’re already calling for refunds. For us, it’s the visitors that we feel bad about, not about our company not having the service.”

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