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Wild Welcome : Two New Regional Parks Will Finally Open to the Public


LAGUNA BEACH — The slightly built hiker trudged up a rutted trail, through meadows of wildflowers and sycamore groves, past canyon walls and creek beds exploding with color after two years of heavy winter rain.

Up and up the young man went in his Army field jacket and camouflage cap, a bedroll peeking from his knapsack. He was lured on, perhaps, by the rare sound of water rushing down Laurel Creek and a glimpse of the wispy veils of wet tumbling over a waterfall ahead.

His reverie was interrupted by Orange County Park Ranger Larry Sweet, who happened to be at the head of the cascade on a cool morning last week. Sweet told the hiker he would have to leave Laurel Canyon, but could come back Saturday for a guided tour.

"There's a long and glorious tradition of trespassing here," Sweet explained after the dejected hiker headed back down the trail.

Such nature lovers have struggled for decades to preserve this and other privately owned canyons flanking Laguna Canyon Road from development. All the while, many have become used to slipping past barbed-wire barricades to grab a bit of solitude in shady groves or on ocean-view ridges.

Now, this key piece of Orange County coastal wilderness is being transformed into public parklands, ending nearly 25 years of acrimony, negotiation, accommodation and public sacrifice to the tune of more than $40 million.

The Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is one of two new Orange County regional parks opening to the public this month. It will provide recreation and preserve valuable coastal sage that is home for many rare species of plants and animals, including the California gnatcatcher, which last month was declared a "threatened species" by the federal government.

The park is also the first in a series of wilderness areas to be added to the public domain in the next decade or so, which will almost double county parkland to 40,000 acres.

"This is the most exciting time for the park system," said Tim Miller, manager of the county's regional parks, who has seen total park acreage increase from 2,000 acres 20 years ago to 23,000 acres this month.

With the opening of Peters Canyon Regional Park near Orange later this month, "it looks like we're going to continue to expand," Miller said. "And what we're getting are huge pieces of land in a natural state, land that the public has never had the right to go on before."

When Laguna Coast Wilderness Park officially opens at 9 a.m. Saturday, the public will be able to take the first guided tours of almost pristine coastal sage canyons in full bloom.

But there is a hitch: Access to most of the park will be limited to docent-led tours scheduled on three weekend days each month, and reservations must be made in advance. That is a small price to pay, Sweet says, to keep the wilderness area truly wild.

"There has to be a new ethic, a new appreciation for this land that allows people to enjoy it without degrading it for the people who will follow us," Sweet said after a recent tour of the new park.

Those who fought so long to keep out housing tracts, golf courses and resorts couldn't be happier now that their beloved canyon is finally opening as a park.

"I'm absolutely ecstatic about it," said Robert F. Gentry, a longtime city councilman in Laguna Beach, where 80% of the city's voters agreed to tax themselves to pay for a $20-million bond measure to acquire the land from the Irvine Co.

"When I first came to Laguna Beach, we all expected there would be several thousand homes out there. To me, this is symbolically one of the most important events of my 20 some years in Laguna," added Gentry, who is expected to join dozens of environmentalists, civic leaders and Irvine Co. officials at Saturday's dedication ceremony.

At about 3,200 acres, the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park already is the county's third largest park. With future land acquisitions, it will become the county's largest at more than 10,000 acres.

Assuming that the city of Laguna Beach and the Laguna Canyon Foundation are able to raise an additional $38 million over the next several years, the ultimate park would encompass a wide swath of coastal hills stretching from the lowlands near Irvine to the rocky outcroppings beside Laguna Canyon to the grassy seaside cliffs near Crystal Cove State Park south of Corona del Mar.

With Crystal Cove State Park on its southwestern flank, and proposed parks in Irvine's Shady and Bommer Canyons, environmentalists say this coastal Orange County region long known as the "Laguna Greenbelt" could eventually include nearly 15,000 acres.

All of it will be undeveloped except for the planned San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor, a six-lane highway that will bisect a portion of the region.

The preservation effort started in the 1960s, when a scholarly looking Laguna Beach bookseller named James Dilley first talked about creating a huge greenbelt along the Orange County coast, instead of fingers of so-called "open space."

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