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Requiem for the Refugio Palms (Editorial)

By now, you probably know what’s been happening up at Refugio State Beach. If you haven’t, here’s a link to the story of the Refugio Palms. Some folks are tired of hearing about the palms. But we think the loss of such a popular and loved feature of Refugio State Beach should have a proper send off.

Something more than just letting them float off into historical oblivion.

As the story of these historic palms dropping dead and floating out to sea spread throughout the state, a lot of people were all asking the same question: Can they be replanted? Can they be moved? Well, yes, they can. Or they could have been, before they keeled over.

In fact, the State Parks moved the Refugio Palms in the past. The Refugio snack bar used to be much closer to the beach.

After a big El Nino year in the 1980s, the snack bar was in danger of being destroyed, so the State Parks moved it and some of the historic palms further back, away from the shore.

The historic palms were saved, as was the insignificant, but profitable, snack bar.

But the takeaway from that little story is that Rutherford’s palms were able to be moved and saved.

They were dug up and relocated, for another generation to enjoy.

And it wasn’t that difficult.

So if it was done before, it could have been done again, right? One would think.

What is different in 2024? Well the first reason we got from park officials was that they are now too old to save. “They have outlived their expected lifespan.” We found out later that is false. These are almost 100 years old, but Canary Island Date Palms can, and do, live 200 to 300 years.

We wanted an expert’s advice, so we called TLC Nurseries down in Riverside. They advertise palm tree salvaging and relocation on their website, where we got all the following photos.

We spoke with the owner, Mark Barrett, and he said he had seen photos of the palms at Refugio and wondered why no one was doing anything. Mark said these palms can easily be removed and replanted either onsite or taken offsite.

Mark said they have been relocating Canary Island Date Palms for over 38 years, with great success.

By coincidence, Mark said they had worked at Refugio State Beach before. They planted some of these same palms up by the Refugio Guard Shack years ago.

When I told him the State Parks Official Statement said these palms were already at the end of their expected life span, he rejected that and agreed they often live 200 years. So the Refugio Palms could have potentially been around for another 100 years.

He asked me if there is any reason they can’t be moved back 100 feet. That’s a great question isn’t it…. ?

He stated it’s an easy process. It just requires a big crane, backhoe, and a crew. They could move maybe 3 per day at total cost of $7500 per day, or $2500 each palm. They’ve moved many Canary palms over 100 years old and they do fine if the aftercare is adequate. So there you go, we got a real estimate from a real landscape company that was ready and willing to do the job immediately.

When we spoke to another very nice State Parks official, we found out that the age wasn’t really the problem. The real problem is Climate Change. I wasn’t clear on how that is just a blanket reason for inaction. So she explained that they were currently going through the process of how best to move forward, and reaching out to experts to discuss what options are on the table and a bunch of other bureaucratic clichés I forget. But by the end of Spring, they will have a forum for public input.

Also by the end of Spring, the palms will have floated to Hawaii.

The palms looked like this in 2016, and they also started falling into the ocean that year. I asked why the state didn’t take any action in the 8 years since then? Her response was that the palm’s root balls were the only defense the park had, they were keeping the park from being washed away, so nothing was done. And so that brings us to where we are today, with no root balls and no defense for the park. It would seem then that for the past 8 years, no effort was made by the State Parks to come up with a plan to put something else there.

Finally I asked why they were so quickly and easily moved in the past, she said she didn’t work here then and didn’t have an answer. After our conversation, I didn’t have any real answers either, but I felt bad for the official I had spoke with. She is in a terrible spot and she acknowledged the bureaucracy is big. She is not responsible for the lack of effort to save the palms. She’s just one little cog in the massive wheels of government that are now frozen by our litigious society.

So the reason for Refugio losing Rutherford’s palms may be Climate Change, but I think maybe the real reason is Culture Change. No government employee is bold enough to take any action for fear of a lawsuit. Thirty years ago, a phone call was made, equipment showed up and went to work saving these palms. In the same situation today, an email gets sent requesting the forms that need to be filled out to request a meeting to discuss how to best move forward in the process of thinking about doing anything. But their supervisor is currently out of the office, so check back next week- Culture Change.

So, for whatever reason, we say a final farewell to the palms that young Nelson Rutherford planted in the late 1920s. Mother Nature knows best, the park is still beautiful, and life goes on. Every time I do a post about the palms, a whole lot of people tell me about their memories there and their photos with the palms in the background. Luckily, there are thousands of photos of them while they lasted.

As I pointed out in the last page, there are a lot of similarities between this situation and what’s happening with the historic Ellwood gas station and the original two hangars. Government bureaucracies and politicians passing the buck, pointing fingers and avoiding the situation, meanwhile ignoring the fact that another piece of our local history is about to be lost forever.

The media got involved, better late then never. Here are a couple of stories-



Send an email if you think the state should have taken some action —

Assemblyman Gregg Hart

Joan Hartmann

Monique Limon

[email protected]  

State Parks Feedback

Special thanks to Mark Barrett at The Landscape Center , Zach Brown, California State Parks, Nelson Rutherford

Categories: Goleta History

Tagged as:

Tom Modugno

6 replies

  1. Great article again, Tom. As we all suspected, it’s just a matter of getting the state to actually DO SOMETHING. I remember that snack shop. I’m thinking the other photos of the palm relocations were from around ’97 (?) after El Nino hit the area. Keep up the good work. Too bad it’s like pulling teeth.

  2. Yes- good work confirming that the trees certainly could be salvaged.
    How about the fact that California State Parks was the recipient of over 5 million dollars as a result of the Plains Pipeline Oil Spill for Habitat preservation projects? Where’d that go ?

  3. Tom, thanks for the great research! (Btw, tapping the link for Dena’s email
    leads to a Goleta History page saying “Error 404 not found”. FYI. )

  4. Best thing to do at this point is to send a brief note to each of the responsible parties listed at the end of the article, I took the time to do so.

    Replant the Refugio State Park palm trees ASAP!

  5. Thank’s Tom
    Well i hope these gentle giants will be preserved ( What is left of them ) For future generations to see. For now we will just have all our paintings / Photos to remember them, I hope the park system will step in to save the trees that are left , It still sickens me when i go to this park.And see less & less palm trees,, Ive been going to Refugio beach since 1959 or so. It’s one of my favorite parks in this area, Thank’s for all your help. Your the greatest. Casey,

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