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Preservation of 11,000 Acres Is Cheered

Land: Environmentalists have long coveted the Irvine Co. land for its beauty and diversity of species.

November 30, 2001|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rugged canyons, centuries-old oak trees, and sweeping expanses of chaparral and sage make up the 11,000 acres that Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren is preserving. It includes some of the most sensitive and biologically rich land in Southern California.

"It's a treasure trove of biodiversity," said Tom Scott, a natural resources specialist with the University of California.

Local elected leaders, environmentalists and scientists are still celebrating Bren's Wednesday announcement, which ensures that more than half of the 93,000-acre Irvine ranch will remain undeveloped.

E-mails were flowing as word spread outside the state. "Yee haw! That is fantastic news. It made my day," wrote Paul Beier, a mountain lion expert at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, in an e-mail to local environmentalist Claire Schlotterbeck.

The land is home to scores of rare indigenous species, from mountain lions to Tecate cypress trees. Environmentalists have coveted it for years.

The expanse includes a 17-square-mile swath of the northern part of the ranch, stretching from Weir Canyon to the Cleveland National Forest, and including Fremont and Blind canyons and parts of Gypsum, Silverado, Santiago and Baker canyons. Areas of grassland, oak groves and other vegetation are studded with striking ridgelines and unusual rock formations.

Bren also preserved the "missing link" in Laguna Laurel, a 173-acre parcel that links Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Crystal Cove State Park and permanent open space in the city of Irvine. The land is part of one of the last undeveloped coastal canyons in Southern California.

This parcel, valued at $33 million 12 years ago, has been sought by preservationists since the late 1980s. Phone calls have been pouring into the Laguna Canyon Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 1991 to preserve and enhance Laguna Canyon and the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, since Bren's announcement at an invitation-only gathering Wednesday night.

"We've had a lot of well-wishers congratulating us, and they're just so thrilled," said a receptionist. "It's been a very joyous day, very joyous."

The North Ranch and Laguna Canyon parcels will be protected through permanent conservation easements that will be donated to the Nature Conservancy. Over the next decade, ownership of the land will be transferred to cities, the county and nonprofit groups.

But in the meantime, scientists, planners and environmentalists will formulate immediate and long-term plans for the land. The Laguna Canyon site, for example, has been used for cattle grazing and needs restoration.

Much of the land is off-limits to recreational users. But public access--which will vary from docent-led tours to picnicking, hiking and camping--could begin in some areas in less than two years.

The Irvine Co., the largest landowner in Orange County, had valuable development rights to build on some of the site, though company officials declined to comment on details.

On the Laguna Canyon parcel alone, the company could have built 1,500 homes. The open space plan appears to have decreased development in east Orange and next to Anaheim, though details on how much were unavailable. The company has preliminary approval to build nearly 20,000 homes on these two parcels, but is expected to build far fewer.

The firm's plans for a large triangular pocket of unincorporated county land known as the North Ranch Policy Area were unknown until Wednesday, when Bren said it would be preserved.

Several possible sites where the county was considering building a jail--including two east of the city of Orange--are now off-limits, thrilling city officials and creating a buzz Thursday in county offices about the loss of the potential jail sites.

Activists also believe that the preservation may kill a proposal to build a road through the Cleveland National Forest that would connect Orange and Riverside counties.

"It leverages protection of even more land," said environmentalist Schlotterbeck, long a critic of Irvine Co. policy. "It was a smart thing to do and a wise thing to do. I am grateful."

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