Panorama of the San Marcos Foothills Preserve
History of the San Marcos Foothills

Adapted from San Marcos Foothills Coalition and County of Santa Barbara materials

For thousands of years, the Native American Chumash people inhabited much of the coastal regions of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles. They lived in villages on the Channel Islands and on the mainland, moving back and forth fishing and trading.

The area that now includes the San Marcos Foothills Preserve was likely used by the Chumash for thousands of years, but it probably did not contain any large, permanent settlements. Most likely the preserve contained trails that linked nearby villages and contained intermittent campgrounds. Artifacts used for food processing have been found at two locations in the preserve area, including a bedrock mortar (circular depression in a rock used by people for grinding food).

In the late 18th century, a string of mission churches was established along the coast of California, and the Santa Barbara Mission was founded in 1782. The Mission, along with the Presidio were the center of the Spanish colony in Santa Barbara. Due to increasing European settlement the Native American population declined by as much as 70 to 80 percent, particularly to disease.

In 1786, much of present day Santa Barbara, including the San Marcos Foothills, was granted to the mission by the Spanish government. Mexico won independence from Spain in 1822 and later secularized the missions.

The foothills area was used primarily for cattle and sheep ranching as part of the large La Paloma Ranch, established after American sovereignty over California in 1847. From 1856 to 1913 ownership of various parcels in the foothill changed often and ownership and property boundaries were often unclear. The St. Vincent sisters purchased 620 acres on either side of Foothill Road and named it Cieneguitas Ranch. During the severe drought of the 1860s, much of their orchards, as well as sheep and cattle herds were decimated. By the early 20th century much of the La Paloma Ranch had been subdivided, including the 800 acres on the foothills. Between 1910 and 1925, the Flying A Studios, a Santa Barbara-based film company, reportedly filled scenes at the foothills.

Throughout the 20th century the ranch was sold several times and also leased for use as a dairy. Sheridan Wright purchased 800 acres in the foothills in 1913. His holdings extended from Hwy. 154 on the west to Barger Canyon on the east. Portions of his land would later become La Colina Park and the Trinity Baptist Church properties. Wright built and renovated houses and farm structures and kept a herd of cattle. In 1923 fire would char much of the foothills. In 1934 the Wright property was foreclosed and its ownership would go to Harold Chase, Peter Cooper and W. Dickerson. Part of the land was leased to Antony Cavali to operate a dairy. The lower portion of the foothills was leased to Charles del Pozzo, who subleased it to the Loredo family to grow tomatoes, beans and melons.

Antonio Prevedello bought the 800-acre property from Harold Chase et al. in 1942. A dairy operated on the southern portion of the foothills, where milk products were processed from other dairies he owned. Following the Second World War, single-family housing was developed on parts of the property, while other parts were deeded to the state for road widening and to build a church.

From the 1970s on there were several proposals to develop the remaining 377 acres of the foothills. None of the proposals were approved, so the property remained in agricultural use. A 1998 proposal to develop an equestrian-themed community was denied approval, and was the impetus for the formation of the San Marcos Foothills Coalition (SMFC), whose goal would be to protect and preserve the precious foothill open space. Brooke Bulkley and Mark Holmgren were the founders of the organization and by the end of 1999, more than a dozen community organizations had joined the Coalition. Over the next few years, the SMFC worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the unique Foothills property and the need to preserve it. They sponsored lectures, slide shows and art exhibits. They produced a newsletter, raised funds and continued to add more organizations to the Coalition.

In 2001 the SMFC drafted “A Plan for the Preservation and Stewardship of San Marcos Foothills” that laid out the group’s goals for protecting the natural resources on the property. The plan focused on long term protection, enhancement and restoration of the Foothills. It also encompassed the historic, scenic and educational values of the San Marcos Foothills, and addressed public access and management of the property.

Near the end of 2005, Bermant Development Corporation (BDC) received approval from the County Board of Supervisors to develop 15 single family lots and five “affordable” condominiums on a portion of the property. In 2007 Santa Barbara Foothills LLC (managed by BDC) donated 200 acres of the property to the Trust for Public Land (TPL) as a charitable donation. TPL subsequently donated the 200 acres to County Parks to "ensure that the property will be preserved as open space for its biological, scenic and archaeological resources." In 2010, the SMFC partnered with Channel Islands Restoration (CIR) a local non-profit organization to restore habitat along Atascadero and Cieneguitas creeks. Funding for the projects was provided by the Goleta Valley Land Trust and the SMFC. As part of this process, CIR entered into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with County Parks to perform the restoration work. In 2013, the SMFC and CIR began development of a San Marcos Foothills docent program.

In 2015, the SMFC began the process to "wind up" the organization and turn its responsibilities over to CIR. In December 2015, both organizations signed a memorandum of agreement whereby CIR "will maintain an interest in the Preserve and strive to continue the work of SMFC to oversee the Preserve's natural resources and prevent the loss of values of the Preserve to the public by taking such actions as it deems reasonable and appropriate.

In February 2016, County Parks and CIR renegotiated a revised MOA expanding CIR’s responsibility at the Preserve.  Under the MOA, CIR serves as the Project Manager for habitat restoration and stewardship on the Preserve, which includes such activities as, removing non-native plants, planting natives, hosting volunteer groups, leading educational walks, conducting public tours, developing and implementing a docent program, generating community interest in conservation of the property, advising County Parks regarding recreational uses, interpretive signs, needed trail repairs and advocating for sensitive public recreational uses that are compatible with the biological, cultural and scenic resources of the Preserve.