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Environmentalists Seek Support for Wish List : Proposal: Volunteers will try to collect enough signatures to get a $2-billion bond initiative on state ballot in 1994. The county would get $98.05 million to purchase land for 17 park and wildlife sites.

June 13, 1993|MARLA CONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From prized canyons in Laguna Beach and Anaheim Hills to rare wetlands in Huntington Beach, many of Orange County's most coveted natural lands would be preserved or restored under a $2-billion bond initiative that environmentalists hope to put to voters statewide next year.

Beginning this weekend, environmentalists are fanning out all over the state to try to collect enough voters' signatures to qualify the massive Californians for Parks and Wildlife measure for the state ballot in June, 1994.

Seventeen projects in Orange County and hundreds more throughout California--from renovation of inner-city parks in Los Angeles to purchase of remote redwood forests near Eureka--are targeted for funding in the proposed initiative. Orange County would be allocated $98.05 million out of the $2 billion, ranking third behind only Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

The projects represent a virtual wish list for California environmentalists, who have been struggling for years to find ways to protect those areas identified in the proposal, many of which now face development pressures. Statewide, the list of lands that would be preserved or enhanced is so immense that it encompasses 12 pages.

"We simply cannot rely on government to protect natural areas and threatened habitats. We have to do it ourselves," said Michael Phillips, executive director of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy. "It's important that when we go to see landowners, we have the money in hand."

But the state Department of Parks and Recreation, which would administer most of the monies, is expressing reservations about the enormous scope of the initiative.

"What's staggering to us is the sheer dollar amount of the bond," said Denzil Verardo, chief of public affairs for the parks department. "I'm not sure of the viability of a bond that size. . . . The problems with it could be tremendous financially."

Verardo said the state agency cannot under law take an official stand on a ballot measure, and will not actively support or oppose it.

"The voters will let us know what they think," he said. "If it makes it on the ballot, then people want that kind of indebtedness."

The bonds would cost the state about $3.5 billion in principal and interest payments over about 20 years, based on bond sales at a 7% rate, according to an estimate by the legislative analyst and state director of finance. In addition, "other unknown significant costs, possibly in the millions of dollars annually," would be incurred to operate and manage the lands, according to the financial statement.

Led by the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League, environmentalists behind the effort say they tried to avoid controversy by limiting properties to be purchased to those with willing sellers. The landowners were contacted in advance for approval, although they offered no guarantees they would sell for any particular price.

"We refused to include anything that was considered controversial or didn't have willing sellers," said Lynn Sadler, natural resources director of the Planning and Conservation League.

To come up with the final list of projects, the environmental group had to sift through more than 1,500 nominations, requesting more than $100 billion, from more than 600 grass-roots groups.

Because Orange County's land prices are so high, most of its allotted money would go toward purchasing land for parks and wildlife areas. Little would be left over for improving, restoring or managing the parks and wilderness areas, some of which are severely degraded, and money for these needs would have to be collected from other public and private sources.

Included in the bond proposal is $25 million for purchasing 189 acres in Laguna Canyon, $11 million to buy a cougar pathway in Coal Canyon in Anaheim Hills, $14 million for purchasing oak woodlands in Silverado Canyon and other eastern foothills and $12 million for an undeveloped coastal ridgeline in South Laguna.

Also, $6 million would be set aside to restore or buy some Bolsa Chica wetlands and uplands near Huntington Beach, while $4 million would go toward purchasing nearby oceanfront wetlands near Brookhurst Street.

Other projects in the county include $5 million to buy a Santiago Creek greenway in Santa Ana and Orange, $3.5 million to create a historical and archeological park near Mission San Juan Capistrano and $6 million to expand popular Irvine Regional Park near Orange.

Nearly all of the Orange County sites are facing imminent plans for development into homes, roadways and other projects by corporate landowners.

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Statewide, other natural lands that would be preserved are portions of the Ballona wetlands and El Segundo Dunes in Los Angeles County, numerous Central Valley wetlands, groves of redwoods in Northern California and natural habitat along the American River.

Since the proposal is only now being circulated publicly, no one can gauge whether opposition from business groups and others will be significant.

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