The King Range Conservation Area is a significant holding and very unusual stretch of coastline. It’s the only stretch of coastline from the Mexican border to the Oregon/Washington border that is not roaded or developed. The uniqueness of the area was recognized as early as 1929, when Congress withdrew the remaining public land here from any further disposition.
"They knew this was a significant location," says Gary Pritchard-Peterson, "and they weren’t sure what they should do with it. Up until the 1950s at least, the BLM was a land disposal agency. In the late 1940s the Grazing Service and General Land Office were combined to make the Bureau of Land Management, and for a couple of decades after that the BLM was disposing of land and managing grazing contracts. The modern BLM was created in 1976 with the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLiPMA) and the policy shifted to conservation.
Pritchard-Peterson is the Conservation Area Manager for the King Range. He says that originally the area was known as the Unknown Coast, but somewhere along the line it got changed to Lost Coast.
The King Range in its current configuration is about 65,000 acres of public and private land within the boundaries of the conservation area. It was established by an act of Congress in 1970 after several decades of work. Originally it was about 25,000 acres of public land and the rest was private land. The public land portion was land that was never homesteaded because it was too steep.
The act that created the area was groundbreaking in two ways, Pritchard-Peterson says. It authorized the purchase of private land from willing sellers, and it authorized the appropriation of money to do so.
"They were looking at the time to refine the concept of multiple use," Pritchard-Peterson says, "’from everything can happen everywhere all the time’ to ‘different pieces of land are suitable for different things.’"
The Act had language recognizing that and requiring BLM to produce a plan that would take into account the particular merits of a geographic section of land and determine a primary use and acceptable secondary uses.
The original King Range plan was in use in 1974 and it divided the King Range into seven different management areas with different primary uses. Most of the Coastal slope of the area is dedicated to primitive recreation, meaning no roads and no development. There are four grazing allotments on the less forested areas at the north end, but the greater portion provides large areas of wildlife habitat, including habitat for spotted owl and potentially marbled murrelet, although none have been detected. There is also habitat for three threatened species of salmonid; steelhead, Chinook, and Coho.
"A large part of our focus," he says, "is maintaining those habitats."
Pritchard-Peterson and his staff are just completing an update of their management plan, making a management guide for the next 10 to 20 years. The focus of that plan, he says, will be forest and fire management.
"A lot of the lands we acquired in the 70s and 80s had been cut over and never reforested. They’ve re-grown in thick, dense stands of tan oak and fir and we are going to be doing some stand improvements to try and fireproof the area and encourage a kind of silviculture that will accelerate growth into stands with more old-growth characteristics."
The most popular feature of the King Range Conservation Area for visitors is the Lost Coast Trail. The trail is a Congressionally designated National Recreation Trail that continues through the BLM land to and through the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.
"That’s the big draw," Pritchard-Peterson says, "that’s what everybody comes to do. They want to hike the Lost Coast Trail. We’re trying to get a good handle on the numbers, but several thousand people hike that trail every year. We’re setting up a self-service registration system for the trail so people can issue themselves a back country permit that includes some educational material as to what we expect in terms of fire, sanitation, and use of bear canisters."
The permit will also give them a more accurate count of the number of visitors. As it is, rangers on patrol keep field notes, including the number of people they meet, but it’s such a large area that it’s possible to walk for a day or more and not see another person. The trail attracts hikers year around, he says, even in the winter, but summer is when most people come. The most popular scenario is to hike from Mattole Beach to Black Sand Beach, an excursion that can be done in about three days, although Pritchard-Peterson says he prefers a more leisurely pace that allows time to enjoy all that the unique habitat has to offer.
The 24-mile long (52 miles if you go all the way to Usal) Lost Trail is not the only trail in the area. Pritchard-Peterson says the other shorter trails are gaining in popularity. These range from the 2.9-mile Spanish Ridge Trail to the 11.4-mile King Crest Trail that straddles the spine of the King Range. Some of the trails are quite challenging. Anyone considering a hike would be well advised to stop at the BLM headquarters on the road to Shelter Cove. The Visitor Center there features a large topographical map of the area that gives a clearer impression of the difficulty of a particular hike than can obtained from a flat map.
As for the above-mentioned bear canisters, they are being required because the King Range is home to a large population of bears.
"They’re all over the place," Pritchard-Peterson says. "For a few years, they were getting into everybody’s stuff and even stealing backpacks. My backpack was stolen early one morning. Bears were spending the night in people’s camps. They went into a couple of people’s tents. We made an emergency rule that you have to carry a bear canister or face a major fine."
A bear canister is a device for storing food, food wrappers, sunscreen, trash, chapstick, anything with a scent that might attract a bear. The canisters are designed so that a bear can’t pick them up or open them. They are set in plain sight, emit no enticing odors and have been tested with grizzlies in zoos. The bear will sniff around and walk on, because they are looking for food that can be obtained without expending much energy. Some bear canisters are better than others. For the King Range, only canisters certified by the Sierra Interagency Working Group are acceptable.
The canister rule has been in effect for two years Pritchard-Peterson says and the bears are not bothering people nearly as much.
There are also a lot of rattlesnakes in the King Range. They live on the Coast at the mouths of creeks.
"In fact," Pritchard-Peterson says, "wherever water is, all animals will be there sooner or later. Rattlesnakes also come to places where people camp and drop food around. The food attracts mice and the mice attract the snakes."
There are six campgrounds in the King Range. The Mattole Campground is almost always full when the weather warms. The Wailaki and Nadelos campgrounds in the Chemise Mountain area get used a lot, as well. Nadelos is available for rental to groups of up to 65 people. Horse Mountain and Tolkan campgrounds are on the King Peak Road. Neither have water and so are used less. Honeydew Campground is used a lot by folks who live in the Honeydew area. It’s also popular with hunters who come up for hunting season.
In 1997, a Lost Coast Interpretive Association formed and helped the staff with their interpretive exhibits at the Visitor Center. The active members of the LCIA are taking some time off, but new volunteers are always welcome. Anyone with an interest in helping should contact the BLM station, which is located on Whitethorn Road just a short distance west of Whitethorn Construction. Their phone number is 986-5400. They also have a website, www.ca.blm.gov/arcata.
When it was still active, the LCIA also helped produce a 20-minute orientation video, produced with the help of locals, Al Cerulo and Sarah Mast. This video is required viewing for special permit holders, Pritchard-Peterson says.
"Aside from the individual hikers and families, there’s quite a number of outfitters who bring guided tours out here, as well as groups like the Boy Scouts, church groups, and university groups," says Pritchard-Peterson. "A group presents different problems. They leave a bigger impact, both visually and socially with other campers. With sanitation, they leave a big impact, and with trampling they leave a bigger impact. And we were finding that with some of the outfitters, the guides were barely more competent than their clients. There were medical and search and rescue situations where a few guides made really poor decisions, so we decided we needed to get a handle on that. For one thing, there are a limited number of places to camp on the Lost Coast Trail, so we now schedule them so that they don’t all bunch up in one place, and there are certain areas that are off-limits to groups."
The groups are also required to view the orientation video.
Because the staff interpretive position is vacant currently, their outreach program to local schools is somewhat on hold. In the past, the interpretive staff have offered mushroom walks, forest ecology walks, trash pickups along the Shelter Cove Road, and guided tidepool hikes at Shelter Cove. BLM owns Mal Coombs Park at the Cove and the tidepools, which is another thing that makes them unique. Most BLM lands are high and dry, Pritchard-Peterson says. Those activities will not be available this summer, but as soon as a new interpretive staff member is hired and trained, they will be available again.
Pritchard-Petersen says he is actively recruiting volunteers for a project to create a mountain bike trail in the Paradise Ridge area. They are working with the International Mountain Biking Association to complete a loop trail system of about 12 miles that he says will feel like 30 because of the terrain. It will be mainly a hand-built trail.
The BLM staff is also working closely with Ray and Marie Raphael and the Nick’s Interns program that the Raphaels started to honor their son, Nick who was killed in an automobile accident. Nick worked for BLM and went on to get a degree in forestry.
"This will be our third year with the program," he says. "The first year we hired one college student and two high school students to work with us all summer as government employees. And we also have what we call ‘camperships’ for projects in the King Range. Each camp culminates with a week’s camping stay. It’s an inter-agency thing. Last year we camped in the Sinkyone, which is State Park, building a trail. We started the program with 11 kids. We had 16 last year, and we’re going to have 24 this year."
The age range of the campers is 14 to college-age, and the purpose of the program is to give the kids a chance to check out conservation-type jobs. The kids get to work with wildlife biologists, geologists, and archaeologists to get exposure to a variety of disciplines.
"We’re really committed to the program," Pritchard-Peterson says, "although it’s a real challenge to have all those teenagers around. But we look forward to participating in that every summer."