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Sale Returns Wilderness to Public


Beyond the scruffy bunch grass and the gnarled valley oaks, beyond the sparkling creek and the time-etched rocks, a clearing known as China Flat overlooks tiers of distant mountains--a spectacular vantage point that will soon open to the public for the first time in decades.

Described reverently as the crown jewel of the Simi Hills, the rolling meadows of China Flat sprawl across the crest of Jordan Ranch, the 2,308-acre parcel which the National Park Service this week purchased from entertainer Bob Hope.

"It's a beautiful site, a unique site, and it hasn't been touched by urbanization," said Don Hunt, general manager of the Rancho Simi Park and Recreation District. "We had dreamed of acquiring this for a long time, and it's going to be a very valuable resource."

The entire property, which includes oak-lined Palo Comado Canyon as well as sage-carpeted China Flat, will open for recreational use within four to six months. And as soon as it does, hikers, bikers and equestrians are expected to swarm into the rugged ranch, once slated for luxury homes and a world-class golf course.

From a gently sloping, well-maintained fire road to a steep, overgrown cow path, the ranch offers something for outdoor enthusiasts of all fitness levels. Chumash artifacts, including arrow-heads strewn along a riverbank and tell-tale signs of garbage dumps outside caves, provide a sense of California's heritage.

"There's a tremendous wilderness feeling there," said Rorie Skei, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's program manager for the area. "There are opportunities even for people who don't want to go on a long trek."

A dozen trails link Jordan Ranch to Cheeseboro Canyon and Oak Canyon Community Park, stitching together about 6,000 contiguous acres of parkland. Crisscrossing China Flat, other paths connect with the nearly complete Zuma Ridge trail network, which extends through Agoura Hills to the Pacific Ocean.

The National Park Service has not yet drawn up blueprints for parking lots, restrooms, picnic tables or other amenities, spokeswoman Jean Bray said. Even the question of access remains unresolved, since no road goes directly into Jordan Ranch.

Although the park service's latest prize will remain officially closed until all safety and access issues have been resolved, intrepid hikers will be able to cross into Palo Comado Canyon from Cheeseboro as soon as rangers remove a fence separating the tracts.

Some have already made the trip illegally.

"It's a real gem," said Ed Mercurio, who has traipsed through Ventura County's backcountry for the past two decades as an emissary for preservationist groups.

Aside from its significance as a recreation park, Jordan Ranch is considered crucial as a wildlife habitat and corridor. Bobcats, deer, mountain lions and dozens of other animals live among the rolling hills and rocky outcroppings of the former cattle ranch.

Swooping from meandering creeks to imposing sandstone cliffs with views of mountains 50 miles away, Jordan Ranch contains several important habitats. On a bony ridge in China Flat, historic nesting sites of golden eagles and California condors may one day lure those birds back, said Rose Rumball-Petre of the National Park Service.

The rare valley oak, forced out of many traditional habitats by creeping development, also flourishes along the six-mile Palo Comado Canyon, which runs parallel to Cheeseboro and Las Virgenes canyons.

"It's the most gorgeous oak forest we'll ever see," said Mary Wiesbrock, president of the environmental group Save Open Space.

Aside from its breathtaking beauty, Jordan Ranch offers visitors some urban curios, such as a mock log cabin used as a movie set for "Back to the Future III" and a lookout point from which to gawk at the thick brown smudge of smog that hangs over the San Fernando Valley.

Green poles used to mark the boundaries of the envisioned golf course stand at intervals among 2,000 oak trees, reminders of Hope's plans to transform the parkland into an enclave for the rich.

Throughout the property, empty shotgun shells litter the ground. Rust-encrusted bullet holes pockmark even a "No Hunting" sign posted by the Bridle Path Homeowners Assn., which owns contiguous land that stretches down toward Simi Valley.

Until the sale, Jordan Ranch's tenants sponsored hunts to kill mountain lions and other animals that preyed on their cattle, said David E. Gackenbach, the National Park Service's regional superintendent. The ranchers have 90 days to move several hundred cows and clear away a junkyard of corroded pipes and broken-down horse trailers.

Even when the cows are gone, however, the years of ranching will still leave their imprint on the land, Gackenbach said. Overgrazing threw the delicate ecosystem out of whack by depleting natural vegetation and clearing the way for alien plants to take root, he said.

With limited federal dollars, the park service is unlikely to be able to conduct an inventory of the land's natural and cultural resources, Gackenbach said. He estimates it would cost about $100,000 to survey the new parkland's wildlife, catalogue plants and identify sacred Chumash sites.

In the coming months, the park service will draft a plan for managing its newly acquired land. Gackenbach said getting the parkland ready for the public--by providing ranger patrols, improving roads, and installing gates and parking spaces--would cost about $120,000 in the first year alone.

"We're looking for creative ways to fund maintenance," he said. "It will take time and money--or volunteers."

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