A stone's throw from the bluff-top homes of Newport Beach, pickleweed grows freely and birdsong sweetens the morning. This is the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, 752 acres of tidelands, meandering channels and salt marshes located on the Pacific flyway for migratory birds.
You needn't be a birdwatcher to tour the reserve with the Friends of Newport Bay, the 1,000-member group devoted to the area's preservation. Simply take your curiosity and binoculars and leave the unnatural world behind.
Nearly half a million people visit the reserve annually, and more than 100 colleges and universities use it for hands-on science labs.
Organizers say the tours are part nature study, part public relations. They want to alert the public to the resources there--50,000 birds on any given day, among them the endangered Belding's savanna sparrow and the light-footed clapper rail. And they say many who take the tour wind up sharing their protectiveness for the delicate natural enclave, which they say often is threatened by surrounding civilization.
FOR THE RECORD - Friends of Newport Bay Story Reprinted
Los Angeles Times Monday February 2, 1987 Orange County Edition View Part 5 Page 1 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of a composing room error, portions of a story on the Friends of Newport Bay, appearing Sunday in View, inadvertently were printed out of sequence.
Said longtime member Frank Robinson:
"The real message in environmental preservation is: You lose it once, you've lost it. When you win, you have to keep winning forever."
The Robinsons--Frank and his wife Frances--did win a court battle in 1973 against commercial development of the Upper Bay. In 1975, the state purchased the disputed land from the Irvine Co. and established what is now its third largest coastal wetlands ecological reserve under the California Department of Fish and Game.
But the battle of preservation versus development continues, Robinson said. The Friends' latest fight is opposing the proposed University Drive extension, which would encroach on the top edge of the reserve. The Orange County Board of Supervisors will vote in March on whether to keep the proposed road on the county's master plan of arterial highways that have been or may be built.
Transportation planners at the county Environmental Management Agency said in a report to the supervisors in January that upgrading existing roads might eliminate the need for the University Drive extension. The agency is revising its cost projections, but its latest figures showed that the cost of the extension and that of expanding existing roads were close and both running more than $12 million.
The agency favors keeping University Drive on the master plan as an option for the future.
Robinson believes that the Irvine Co., which owns much of the land through which the road would pass, would benefit most from its construction.
Hugh Fitzpatrick, the Irvine Co.'s senior director for transportation, said he could not "link the extension to any direct benefit to us" but declined to discuss details of his company's plans for that area. "We do believe the master plan should contain University Drive until the consequences of its deletion are worked through," Fitzpatrick said.
Threat From Sediment
Meanwhile, the reserve is threatened by huge deposits of sediment from agricultural and construction activity in the area. State and local sources have already provided more than $3 million for dredging that was completed in 1984; another $5-million dredging operation is to begin this month.
When people arrive for an Upper Bay walking tour, they find information on the University Drive controversy along with brochures on the reserve's history.
The walk begins in Newport, at an overlook off Jamboree Road and Eastbluff Drive.
At 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday 50 people gathered there, the first of more than 300 who would take the tour that day. In light jackets and sweat shirts, slinging binoculars, they were eager to get going, though not before checking out the view.
Three power scopes pointed at the marsh, where a great blue heron sat perfectly still. In the higher distance, cranes angled above building sites, and the sun caught the pink blocks of condominiums.
"Neat morning," said Roger Reinke, the group's volunteer guide. A program assistant for the Anaheim schools, Reinke is cheerful, red-cheeked, as if he had spent his life outdoors.
Checking Field Guides
Bicycles whizzed by. Joggers waved. Reinke led the way downhill as the group busily thumbed field guides and squinted at the trees. In one, a red-tailed hawk devoured a squirrel. In another, a yellow-throated warbler sang.
Reinke discussed plants: toyon berries, beloved by cedar waxwings; tule grass, once used by the Indians for wickiups.
Suddenly a bird dropped from the sky. The hikers stared as it soared again above sedge plumes and abruptly dived as if shot through the heart.
Reinke identified these antics as a hummingbird's courtship dance. "Hear his high squeak?" he asked. "There's a female around somewhere."
The three-quarter-mile walk went slowly with frequent stops for observations and questions. At three points along the way, other volunteers joined in to speak informally on plant habitats, water life and birds.