Island Hunting Plan Misses Target

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Source of this article - Los Angeles Times, August 3, 2006.

A group for disabled veterans shows little interest in a measure to set aside land on Santa Rosa for their use.

By Steve Chawkins, Times Staff Writer

A controversial plan to establish a hunting haven for disabled veterans on rugged terrain in Channel Islands National Park has already taken flak from the National Park Service, congressional Democrats, environmentalists and local governments in coastal California.

TOUGH GOING: Al Kovach, of the Paralyzed Verterans of America, is assisted by park rangers on a visit to Santa Rosa Island in June. "I just couldn't push across that terrain," said Kovach, 41, a former Navy SEAL who has competed in marathons and triathlons.


Now, disabled veterans have joined in, shooting down the proposal for Santa Rosa Island that Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has said he crafted for their benefit.

"There would be a real absence of independence out there," said Douglas K. Vollmer, a spokesman for the 21,000-member Paralyzed Veterans of America. "The terrain would have to be significantly modified for a person in a wheelchair to get around. I doubt if anyone's going to hunt from the landing strip."

In a letter last week to Rep. Vic Snyder, an Arkansas Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Vollmer said Hunter's plan was a nice try but pointed to "numerous obstacles inherent to the island, including ingress and egress, logistics, personal safety and cost."

Despite the lack of interest from a group that Hunter has cited as one of the proposal's biggest supporters, the representative's spokesman said he had no plans to abandon it.

Hunter has "expressed interest in talking to the PVA to better understand their concerns and positions," said spokesman Joe Kasper, adding that "the last thing anyone wants to do is force the island on someone who doesn't want it."

The gentle rejection from the veterans group is the latest twist in a saga that National Park Service officials find troubling and puzzling.

Hunter has never visited remote Santa Rosa, 83 square miles of rolling grasslands riven with deep canyons about 40 miles off the coast. But on a car trip along the coast with several Marines recently returned from Iraq, he gazed toward the Channel Islands and came up with the idea of a military hunting refuge, he told fellow lawmakers during a floor discussion last December.

In 1986, the government purchased Santa Rosa for $30 million and made it one of the five islands in Channel Islands National Park. Under terms of the sale and a subsequent court order, the ranching family that sold the island can run a hunting operation there until 2011, when it must remove all the descendants of the deer and elk imported a century ago for trophy hunts.

Hunter's measure, which is now in a House-Senate conference committee, would keep the herds on Santa Rosa indefinitely. The proposal upsets Park Service officials, who note that deer and elk are not native species and that they degrade the environment for native plants and animals.


CHANNEL ISLAND: GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter has proposed creating a hunting ground for disabled veterans on Santa Rosa Island. The plan has drawn criticism from officials and vets.

Officials also object because for the five-month hunting season, access to 90% of the island would be limited to those who could afford to pay a private company thousands of dollars for their island experience.

"We're looking forward to the time when full access on Santa Rosa is available to the public," Channel Islands National Park spokeswoman Yvonne Menard said earlier this week.

Even so, Hunter's plan, which was tucked into an annual defense appropriation bill, was approved by the House in May.

In June, representatives of the paralyzed veterans group visited the island, Vollmer said, and the flush of victory faded.

The group organizes moose hunts in Alaska and wild turkey shoots in Tennessee, but getting to and around Santa Rosa proved daunting. The charter planes that fly to the island's dirt landing strip are small and expensive.

And landing by boat is difficult, if not impossible, for people in wheelchairs because of the dockside ladder that visitors have to use.

"You're starting from scratch as far as accessibility goes," said Al Kovach, a former Navy SEAL who visited the island in June. "When I went out there, it was even difficult to get in and out of the aircraft."

Kovach, a wheelchair athlete who broke his neck in a parachute jump during combat training, said getting around the island was no easier. After a truck in which he was riding rumbled down a rutted track, he had to be pulled backward in his wheelchair through thick brush.

"I just couldn't push across that terrain," said Kovach, a 41-year-old sportsman who has competed in marathons and triathlons and is president of the PVA's San Diego chapter.

In a subsequent talk with Hunter, Kovach said the congressman answered some of his objections. Hunter said he would line up helicopters to transport disabled vets to the island and sponsors who would keep the costs of hunting minimal.

"And he said he had enough resources to make it as accessible as necessary," Kovach said.

In the end, though, Kovach said he preferred a solution that was discussed while he and some Park Service officials were waiting for the fog to lift at the Camarillo airport: Move Santa Rosa's 1,000 or so deer and elk to a place like nearby San Nicolas Island, which is already controlled by the military.

"You'd be preserving the herds, you'd be making the Park Service happy, and we'd still have the hunts," Kovach said.

Federal law requires that outdoor recreation on military installations be made accessible to veterans with disabilities, he said.

The opposition from Kovach's group was hailed by Rep. Lois Capps, the Santa Barbara Democrat whose district includes the island.

"Anyone who's been to Santa Rosa knows they're right," she said in a statement. "These vets have shown once again how we can count on them to put the needs of all Americans ahead of their own interests."

Meanwhile, Vollmer, of the paralyzed veterans group, stressed that Hunter was on the right track but in the wrong place.

"We're not saying his concept is a wrong thing," Vollmer said. "We think it's a very right thing, and in a nation as large as ours we should be able to find a place for it."