Ojai, Calif. – Today, a coalition of local trail users and conservation groups announced an agreement to restore permanent public access to Matilija Falls, a popular recreation destination in the Los Padres National Forest. The agreement also launches a process to negotiate the purchase of an 80-acre parcel along Matilija Creek for eventual transfer to the U.S. Forest Service.
The agreement – signed by the landowner and members of a community association called Keep Access to Matilija Falls Open (“KAMFO”) and filed in Ventura County Superior Court yesterday – will result in permanent public access, trail improvements, and a possible transfer of property. ForestWatch was closely involved in the process. Specific provisions include:
- The landowner will record a deed establishing permanent public access to Matilija Falls. The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy will be the easement holder. This deed was formally recorded with the County of Ventura on September 8, 2016.
- The landowner will negotiate the sale of 80 acres along Matilija Creek to a land trust for eventual transfer to the U.S. Forest Service. Once transferred, the land will become part of the Los Padres National Forest and will automatically merge with the adjacent Matilija Wilderness.
- KAMFO will reconstruct approximately one mile of the trail along its historic location east of the creek, install signage at three locations along the route, and remove illegal campfire rings on private property outside of the trail easement.
- KAMFO will dismiss the legal action seeking a declaration of prescriptive easement based on historic public use.
The trail reconstruction and other work will take approximately 18 months to complete. Land surveys are currently underway to determine the precise trail location, in conjunction with the landowner, and skilled crews will be used to reconstruct the trail and install signage.
About the Trail
The popular route leads to swimming holes, unique geologic formations, and the beautiful Matilija Falls in the Matilija Wilderness Area of the Los Padres National Forest. The public has traveled the route for nearly a century. It was popular with visitors who arrived by stagecoach beginning in the last century and remains one of the best wilderness access points in this part of the Los Padres National Forest.
The trail begins along a dirt road at the end of Matilija Canyon Road and then travels up the middle fork of Matilija Canyon several miles to the falls. The trail has long appeared in hiking guidebooks and on maps produced by the U.S. Forest Service and others dating back to the 1930s. A postcard from 1905 shows people enjoying the falls, evidencing the long history of public access to one of our region’s most spectacular natural wonders.
In 2009, the public was discouraged from using the area. After years of failed negotiations, KAMFO filed legal documents in January 2015, asking a judge to declare a permanent public easement through the property so that the public could continue to access the falls in perpetuity. Based on longstanding California law dating back to the 1850s and affirmed several times by the California Supreme Court, a public right-of-way exists if five or more years of continuous public use can be shown predating 1972.
“We are pleased that all parties came together and reached this agreement for the benefit of the community,” said Bill Slaughter and Gabriele Mezger-Lashly, local attorneys from the firm Slaughter Reagan & Cole LLP who represented the coalition pro bono.
“This agreement ensures that families and outdoor enthusiasts can once again enjoy the natural beauty and tranquility of Matilija Falls,” said Los Padres ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper, a KAMFO member. “National forests are a public resource that should be accessible to all of us, and the community will now be able to access this majestic canyon in perpetuity.”
“We are thrilled that access to Matilija Falls is now permanently protected,” said Alasdair Coyne of Keep the Sespe Wild, another KAMFO member. “Thanks are due to all who contributed to this community effort.”
“I first hiked to Matilija Falls as a young boy in the 1960s and have continued to do so ever since,” said Chris Danch, a North Fork Matilija Canyon resident and KAMFO member. “I took my children there, and they continued to hike the canyon with their friends, and now have the opportunity to take their children. We thank the landowner for working with us to ensure that current and future generations will be able to enjoy this amazing canyon and its magnificent falls.”
“The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy works with willing landowners on projects with community benefits,” said Brian Stark, executive director of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, which agreed to hold the easement and install trail signage. “In this case we will work with current and future landowners to ensure that public access is maintained and that the private property is respected.”