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Proposed sale of research site on Mendocino coast draws fire


For more than 30 years, science students and researchers in Northern California have been utilizing an ecological field station with overnight accommodations and spectacular views of the rugged southern Mendocino Coast. Now, in a disputed move, the land owner, Mendocino College, wants to sell the site to a federal agency, which would forever preserve the land and open it up to the public but likely end its days as an educational tool.

The proposed sale $1.5 million sale has divided officials at Mendocino College, which is trying to offset shrinking revenue driven by declining student enrollment. School administrators are backing the sale while instructors and scientists who use the facilities for research and teaching are opposed to the deal.

Land preservationists at the Trust for Public Land and the proposed buyer, the Bureau of Land Management favor the sale.

BLM ownership could trigger removal of facilities on the former military navigational station, which includes a half dozen structures, including houses and barracks-style buildings that provide laboratory space, classrooms and dormitories.

The BLM plans to add the 15-acre property to the 1,100-mile-long California Coastal National Monument. The field station takes in about 300 meters of coastal bluffs and is adjacent to the 1,665-acre Stornetta Public Lands, recently added by the Obama administration to the National Monument.

But Mendocino College educators and other college science instructors say the property is an invaluable research and teaching tool and should be kept as such.

"I think it's essential for our field classes and our science classes," said Mendocino College marine biology instructor Alan West.

Educators across Northern California have been lobbying the college to either drop the proposed sale or sell the site to another college that would maintain it for research.

"Excellent field stations in pristine habitat, such as Mendocino College's facility, which provide a unique opportunity to stay close to study areas, are few and far between. It would be a great loss to current and future generations of students of all ages if the field station were to close," Jeanne Marie Acceturo, program coordinator for the UC Berkeley Jepson Herbaria, wrote in a June 27 email to Mendocino College officials.

But inaction on the purchase could leave it on the open market, raising the possiblity of private ownership and development, said Rich Burns, field manager of the Bureau of Land Management's Ukiah field office. The BLM's purpose for buying the land is to forever protect it for the public, he said.

The purchase won't keep scientists from accessing and studying the tide pools and other ecological resources, Burns said.

But it wouldn't be the same, critics of the deal claim. Science teachers note that it's likely the buildings would be removed and there no longer would be on-site laboratories or classrooms for their students.

The BLM is not in the business of managing buildings, they note.

That's true, Burns said. But the buildings could be allowed to remain if the college pays the costs of their upgrades and maintenance.

College President Arturo Reyes said the college might consider that, depending on the costs. Field station advocates say the college once planned to spend $1 million in bond measure funds on improvements. It has only spent a fraction of that on improving the facility.

Reyes said school officials and the committee tasked with prioritizing the bond expenditures decided the money was better spent elsewhere. He noted the bond did not specify how the money should be spent.

Reyes said relatively few of the college's students use the field station and it makes more sense to spend money on programs that benefit more people.

Critics of the sale also are concerned by the provision that, under federal management, the land would need to be open to the public. Such access could alter what they consider pristine habitat and damage or destroy a key natural destination for science.

People might, for example, trample, move or take marine plants or animals, they say.

"I'm sorry. The public has altered the diversity" of the ecosystem on the former Stornetta property to the south, said Julie Bawcom, a part-time Mendocino College geology instructor. She said archaeological sites also have been disturbed within the public lands.

Burns said he's seen no evidence of that and noted laws forbid people from altering the habitat in the protected areas.

The college first approached BLM about a possible sale four or five years ago, Burns said.

BLM now has the funding to move forward but the sale must be completed this year or the money could be lost, he said.

The land originally belonged to the federal government.

Before it became college property, the land and its structures were part of long range navigation station, which was operated by the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1945 to 1950 and by the U.S. Coast Guard from 1950 to 1980. Long-range navigation stations, known as Loran stations, for the most part became obsolete with the advent of global positioning systems.

The property was declared surplus 34 years ago and other government agencies were asked to submit proposals for its future use. Mendocino College bid to establish an educational field station plan won and the college began utilizing the facilities about two years later. But the college, which paid nothing for the land, did not become the official owner on the deed until 2011, about the time college officials began discussing its future, including the option of selling, Reyes said.

Opponents have noted that the sale of the property would mean the public has twice purchased that property for federal agencies. Critics of the sale plan to voice their objections to the sale at the college board's meeting next week.

"It is truly an educational gem," Bawcom said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com)