At Right: Watching the sundown transformation of dusk-to-dawn lights twinkling to life across the Valley are from left, Susan Musgrove, president of Women's Environmental Watch, JoAnna Wogulis, founder of the W.E.Watch group and long-time member Jody White.
Above: W.E. Watch members gather for annual retreats to discuss future goals for their group. Retreats have been held at Cachuma Lake, the Sedgwick Ranch and Sanford Vineyards.
Above: a growing presence of bad light fixtures gradually eliminates starscape views.
Above: without light pollution, the night sky offers an unending view of the universe, once a common site in the Valley
Keeping Watch Over the Valley
by Brooke Comer
Ten years ago, JoAnna Wogulis realized that the upcoming supervisoral election might change the board's structure, putting the Valley in jeopardy in terms of future development. At the time, there was no local organization working to preserve and protect the Valley's vulnerable future, and a pro-development board posed a serious threat. Wogulis, together with Margy Houtz invited a group of concerned local residents to discuss a plan to protect the Valley. "Many women showed up," Wogulis recalls, "and Women's Environmental Watch (W.E. Watch )&emdash; was born."
Long before she co-founded W.E. Watch, Wogulis was arguably the Valley's leading female activist. A strong voice in the Women's Movement in the 1970s, she launched Women for Women, a Valley organization offering empowerment programs that helped women develop job skills and juggle family and work. Her aggressive efforts to help other women speak out on women's issues has since been channeled toward political involvement that serves the protection of Santa Ynez Valley's rural environment.
W.E. Watch evolved out of a need to provide Santa Ynez Valley women with a forum, as well as to set up a protocol for environmental preservation . "In the beginning," says Wogulis, who has since resigned from the board but remains an active member, "We'd bring in speakers to talk about issues from organic farming, to wildlife preservation. I like to believe we've succeeded as a training ground for women, to make them comfortable and vocal in a larger political arena."
Today W.E. Watch has over 100 members from the Valley and Santa Barbara. There are five male members, whom Wogulis jokingly calls "the auxiliary." "We set out to be, and we still are primarily an educational forum," says Wogulis, but members do attend and speak out at the Board of Supervisor's meetings and other public forums. Members also attend meetings organized by other groups including the Valley Blueprint, Central Coast Wine Growers, GPAC, the Santa Ynez Valley Natural History Society and other organizations affecting the Valley environment. In this way, W.E. Watch members are able to keep an eye on what's going on in areas of development and agriculture, and help to educate the public in terms of how those changes will affect them.
Current president Susan Musgrove who joined W.E. Watch five years ago, presides over a full board of directors. An environmental studies major, Musgrove got her first taste of country living, on a five acre Santa Ynez property, which fueled her interest in preserving local land. She attended a W.E. Watch meeting and was impressed "with the group's knowledge and dedication to environmental preservation."
Two years ago, the board had no president and no board. The group had languished into a group of concerned citizens whose concern for the environment was now matched by concern for the future of their own group.
In an effort to strengthen W.E. Watch's watchdog status, the group re-organized, wrote bylaws, and applied for and received a tax exempt status. An interim board and officers were elected and tasks were divided up. The group was so small at that point that Musgrove's election was not even a formal process; she accepted a request from other members to serve as president of the interim board. Musgrove was recently reelected to her third term as W.E.Watch president.
Under Musgrove's leadership, the group is prepared to move forward. "More and more people are looking to us to be educated and informed about environmental issues," says Musgrove.
Under Musgrove's new organizational efforts, W.E. Watch is able to provide the kind of educational forum that the Valley needs. Musgrove describes more active involvement in an increasing number of community groups, as well as efforts to enhance environmental education in Valley schools. "We want to do more community outreach," says Musgrove, "and we're very happy that we've been able to increase our membership in the past few years. Many more people are joining in our efforts to preserve the Valley and keep the rural atmosphere pristeen."
A decade after its inception, W.E. Watch is regarded as the paramount
environmental group in the North County, yet it is not a traditional environmental group at all. It is a collective of concerned citizens, "and not a lobbying organization," Wogulis stresses.
"We don't identify ourselves as lobbyists, though we do have what we call our SWAT process; if an important issue is coming up at a meeting that concerns us, and individual members are needed, we'll put out SWAT calls and five or more of our members will show up. To me, that's part of our educational approach. That's how we gather information, to share with the greater community."
Wogulis says that the major goal of W.E. Watch is to preserve the rural environment and natural resources in the Valley. "We become involved with anything," she says, "that relates to that goal." She cites the active participation of W.E. Watch members in the Valley Blueprint process, the Oak Tree Collaborative, the preservation of the Santa Ynez River, and rural roads. Individual W.E. Watch members also sit on the Central Coast Winegrowers Association Wine Industry Task Force, to give a community voice to the growth of the Santa Ynez Valley wine industry. "Part of our goal includes the support of a viable agricultural industry, including wineries," says Wogulis.
When W.E. Watch was first conceived, "We had a tendency to go in too many directions, in an attempt to solve too many problems," says Wogulis. W.E. Watch has since broken into groups and plans their goals and their strategies very carefully, to maximize the energy output.
A future goal involves acquiring grant money to publish a "Welcome to the Valley" brochure, for new residents unfamiliar with the special needs of rural terrain, especially those from urban areas who don't understand that it isn't appropriate or necessary to use a lot of outdoor lights.
"People move here because of the pristine, country life then try to replicate their urban or suburban lifestyle. This sometimes includes out-of-character architecture, landscaping and lighting to name a few. We think it is a matter of educating people and we hope that this brochure will help do that," Wogulis says.
Margy Houtz shares Wogulis's conviction that light pollution can be controlled through education. Houtz, whose Santa Ynez home was the original W.E. Watch meeting place, has no background in activism. "It's unusual for me to be involved in something like this, because I'm not the type to speak out," she admits. "But I was concerned about the future of the Valley, and intrigued by the power of a women's group, since I think that women approach things differently than men do."
W.E. Watch counts the Stewart Ranch subdivision victory amongst their noteworthy achievements. The Stewart Ranch, on Highway 154 in Los Olivos, was preparing to sell off parcels. "Everything next door," says early member Jody White, "was 20 acre parcels, and the owner wanted to develop five acre parcels on one of only two scenic view corridors left with a clear view from Hiway 154 to the mountains." White and W.E. Watch were largely successful in preventing that, and as a result, only ten percent of the ranch went into ten-acre parcels, and the view was preserved.
Most recently, members have begun to tackle the problem of light pollution, but there is concern about what the future issues may be. "We will be faced with the pressures for growth and development." says Musgrove, "To hold the line in the face of changes to the Board of Supervisors, or a county split, will not be an easy task."
The good news is that a large percentage of Valley residents, who do not identify as tree-huggers, want the Valley to stay as beautiful and tranquil as it is today.
"My hope for the future," says Wogulis, "is that people will realize we're all in this together; homeowners, renters, business owners, ranchers, farmers. We are all Santa Ynez Valley Residents, and it is up to us to do everything we can to preserve the land we love."
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