Requiem for the Refugio Palms

Fallen Refugio Palms (Photo: Goleta History)

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

State Parks Feedback

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


Written by tMo

Tom Modugno is a local business owner, surfer, writer, and community activist. He also runs and

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  1. Another well written post Tom, political leaders doing nothing, then hiring consultation teams to shield them from litigation leads to an inefficient system where nothing gets done at great expense to the taxpayers, cultural change for sure!. Bad thing something still needs to be done as the parking lot and the rest of the park is at risk now, when it should have been addressed 8 years ago!. Thanks!.

  2. If Refugio Beach was lined with million dollar homes a fix would have been found immediately. That would be to dump the millions of tons of rock being hauled from behind Montecito to Goleta Beach, or Carpenteria, or Santa Ynez, and dump some at Refugio to armor the palms.

  3. Thanks for the update, tMo. It’s sad to see such beautiful and iconic plants that we put there in the first place not being their best care. Even though there is something kind of poetic about them “floating out to sea”, I’m pretty sure they will most likely end up on one of our local beaches.

  4. The State Parks are in a STATE of disrepair. At El Cap, the stariway to the beach on the Northside of the park has been closed for years. The bike path and walking trail between Refugio and El Cap has been close and damaged for decades now… Oh, those 12 or so Ranger’s are there to CITE you if you have your dog on a leash on the beach, they’ll collect $45 a night to camp, but the condition of the State Parks is embarrassing.

  5. There are so many awful things happening in the world, but this issue seems like it could actually be addressed. I sent in my pleas, using your very helpful links. It took less than 15 minutes. Voices matter when there are enough of us.

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