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Nature Lovers Get Rare Tour of Preserve


DOVE CANYON — Pete DeSimone, manager of the Starr Ranch Sanctuary, watched with slightly narrowed eyes as cars began filling up an open meadow. Nearby, vendors hawked T-shirts and soft drinks.

"This is a little strange," DeSimone said softly, leaning against a flatbed truck. "This place is usually so quiet. But I expect the deer will be back a half-hour after it's over."

For the first time in more than 20 years, the National Audubon Society opened the 4,000-acre wilderness preserve to the public over the weekend, offering about 500 nature lovers a rare glimpse of unspoiled Southern California terrain.

A diverse ecosystem of dense, wooded canyons and golden hills, Starr Ranch Sanctuary is a wilderness laboratory adjacent to Cleveland National Forest in southeast Orange County. Typically, the only visitors are wildlife researchers and Audubon members on the occasional tour.

"This open house is a goodwill offer to the public," said Audubon spokesman Ken Fortune. "Starr Ranch is a beautiful place, and this is the kind of day we want people to remember when they go home."

After a slightly overcast start, the sun smiled on visitors the rest of Saturday as they set off on guided walking tours of the sanctuary. They learned about ecologically threatened coastal sage vegetation, low-growing plants that cling to steep foothills and cliffs in semiarid Southern California.

It was a good day for bird-watching. Yellow rump warblers, scrub jays, dark-eyed juncos and many other species dotted the tops of tall thistles and sang from sprawling sycamore and oak trees.

Although the deer did take cover, some of the bolder residents of the sanctuary came out to play. An Audubon volunteer found a dusky brown tarantula ambling slowly along the ground near sanctuary headquarters. He let the arachnid crawl up his arm and held it high as a crowd gathered.

With a look of fear, visitor Stacy Strain hesitantly extended her hand toward the tarantula. Her expression shifted to wonderment as, one hairy segmented leg at a time, the spider stepped gently onto her palm.

"He's so light," the Dana Point resident said. "It's like having a breath of air walk on you."

At display booths set up by local Audubon chapters, visitors had close encounters with snakes and red-tailed hawks and stroked mountain lion pelts.

During a lunch break, the group sat at picnic tables in the meadow and listened as DeSimone described the sanctuary and its mission. He stressed that housing developments have caused coastal sage to disappear from many areas in Southern California, making the preservation of Starr Ranch Sanctuary very important.

"There are Mediterranean species here that are found nowhere else in the world," DeSimone said. "When they're gone, that's it."

The Starr Ranch Sanctuary has been closed to the public since it was donated to the National Audubon Society in 1973.

The National Audubon Society plans to allow the public to return in the future--by invitation.

"I'm really glad you're here," DeSimone told the group. "But I hope I don't see you hop over the fence with a bicycle after this is over."

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