San Marcos Foothills Preserve
SMFP Interim Management Plan
Several hundred years ago the South Coast region in which San Marcos Foothills Preserve is located was the domain of the Chumash Indians. The Chumash lived in permanent villages on the mainland and the Channel Islands, and moved back and forth as fishers and traders. Some archaeological evidence suggests that the 200-acre preserve property was the site of trails linking some nearby Chumash villages. Artifacts associated with food processing have been found on the preserve property, which supports the notion that the preserve was the site of intermittent Indian campgrounds.
In the late 18th century, Spanish rule was extended from Mexico into what was known then as the province of Alta California. A string of mission churches was established along the coast, northward from San Diego. Mission Santa Barbara was founded in 1782, and along with the military Presidio erected nearby, became the focus of Spanish colonial development. Under Franciscan doctrine, the California missions were to be centers for the development and conversion of the native peoples. Extensive European settlement of Alta California had big impacts on the native population, with some estimates of a decline of 70-80 percent of the pre-colonial native population, due mostly to disease.
Spanish colonial rule also had a major impact on land ownership, with very large royal land grants used to reward military staff and loyal subjects. The area encompassing San Marcos Foothills Preserve and much of present-day Santa Barbara was formally granted to the mission in 1786. In 1822 Mexico won its independence from Spain, and nine years later the new government secularized the missions, including Mission Santa Barbara. Successive governors of the province subdivided the large mission land holdings and awarded portions of these to loyal subjects and colonizers.
The foothills area including the preserve ultimately became part of the extensive La Paloma Ranch, which was established not during the Mexican period but after American sovereignty over California was achieved in 1847. The land was used primarily for cattle and sheep ranching. By the early 20th century much of the La Paloma holdings had been subdivided out, including the San Marcos Foothills preserve acreage (totaling then about 800 acres). Legend has it that some outdoor scenes filmed by Santa Barbara-based Flying A Studios were shot on the lands of the preserve, with the foothills as backdrop, during the area’s short-lived period as a movie production
center after World War I.
Throughout the 20th century the ranch was sold several times and also leased for use as a dairy. After World War II portions of the property were subdivided and developed for single-family housing, and other parcels were deeded to the state for road widening and to a church. From the 1970s on the remaining tract of about 377 acres was the subject of several proposed developments, but none was approved and the land remained in agricultural use. A proposal in 1998 for an equestrian-themed community of 75 homes also was denied approval, and was the impetus for the formation of the San Marcos Foothills Coalition, which sought to protect most of the site. Most recently, a developer, Bermant Development Corporation, received approval for 15 single family lots and five “affordable” condominiums on a portion of the property, with a 200-acre remainder parcel. This property was donated to the Trust for Public Land, and ultimately acquired by the County.