Ojai, Calif. – Today, Keep Access to Matilija Falls Open – a coalition of local conservation organizations and trail users – filed a lawsuit in Ventura County Superior Court seeking to restore public access to Matilija Falls, a popular recreation destination in the Los Padres National Forest. The legal action comes after years of negotiations with an adjacent landowner failed to produce any formal commitment to allow public access to resume in the area.
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.
However, in 2009, Buz Bonsall, whose family acquired the parcel next to the forest in 1979, began to aggressively confront hikers and took steps to prohibit public access in the area. He also advised hikers, as well as representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, of his intent to have hikers cited for trespassing.
“Matilija Canyon has a rich history of public access dating back nearly one hundred years,” said Los Padres ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper. “National forests are a public resource that should be accessible to all of us. We want to make sure that families and outdoor enthusiasts can once again enjoy the natural beauty and tranquility of Matilija Falls.”
The lawsuit asks a judge to declare a permanent public easement through the property, so that the public can 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.
“The public has used this area for many decades to access the National Forest for hiking, fishing and enjoying the great outdoors,” said Alasdair Coyne of Keep the Sespe Wild. “We are confident that a judge will rule in our favor and recognize the public’s longstanding use of this area.”
“My Dad took me to the Middle Fork of Matilija Creek for the first time in 1960 and since then I’ve made countless trips into that beautiful canyon with friends, my family, and alone,” said Tom Lowe, a long-time Ojai resident. “The rocks, the trees, the water, the breeze, the birdsong, the steep mountain walls—that valley has always been a place of endless joy for me. My hope is that the access to the Middle Fork that I had in my youth will be restored so that all of us can enjoy this glorious canyon once again.”
“Matilija Canyon is one of the most well-loved hiking destinations in Ventura County – a real part of our community for almost 100 years,” said Lisa Myers, the Environmental Grants Manager for Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company based in Ventura. “This issue hits close to home for us – so many Patagonia employees and customers use this trail regularly, and rely on having wild, protected places to explore nearby. The trail should remain open for all to enjoy respectfully, as it has for nearly a century.”
“At the time the property was purchased in the late 1970s, the trail across the property had been used for many years and the Bonsall family knew or should have known that this longstanding use was taking place,” said Bill Slaughter, a local attorney whose firm Slaughter & Reagan LLP is representing the coalition. “The public should not be punished just because a landowner fails to do his due diligence.”
The lawsuit – Keep Access to Matilija Falls Open v. Bonsall – was filed in Ventura Superior Court. The defendant will have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit. Keep Access to Matilija Falls Open (KAMFO) is an unincorporated association consisting of local conservation organizations and Ventura County outdoor enthusiasts.