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Public to Open Irvine Co. Gift Today

Land: Tours of the vast wilderness donated by the company begin. The expanse is home to rare flora and fauna.

April 06, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders will get their first peek at 11,000 pristine acres of northern Orange County's back country beginning today when the Irvine Co. opens its North Ranch conservation area to the public.

The land is studded with sheer canyons, striking ridgelines, majestic oak woodlands and expanses of coastal sage and chaparral. Bats, rattlesnakes, bobcats, hawks and even an occasional mountain lion roam these unspoiled lands.

The Nature Conservancy, which currently is managing the land, is guiding small tours every weekend. However, if your interest is piqued, you're out of luck until May.

"The tours ... are booked up through the end of April," said Trish Smith, a Nature Conservancy senior project ecologist at the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve. "This is the first time public access has been allowed on these lands."

The Irvine Co. and the Nature Conservancy will be working over the next 18 months to fashion a comprehensive management plan for the land, which could include guided tours and unsupervised access. Eventually the Irvine Co. will hand over the land to a public agency or nonprofit group.

"There's such a rich diversity out there, and the goal of our program is to try to allow people to see that and enjoy at least a taste of it as we are doing our planning," said Monica Florian, a senior vice president at the Irvine Co.

Florian is one of a select group of people who has seen the land many times, and she can't pick a favorite spot.

"There are so many unique places, from deep canyons to fern grottoes to really beautiful rolling hills. There's sage country which is open and fresh, yet there's areas that are more riverine," she said.

She added that the area's proximity to city life is forgotten once inside the vast wilderness.

"You would not think that over the hill or right around the bend is the urban center of Orange County, which I think makes it double special for people," Florian said.

On the hiking, biking and riding trips, people will see rocky outcroppings, caves and rare flora, including one of the world's three locations of Tecate cypress trees. The tours also will take visitors to up to three canyons, including Fremont Canyon, called the "Yosemite of Orange County."

The trips are vigorous and designed for the physically fit. Mountain bike and equestrian tours will be 11 to 15 miles, and hikes will range from four to 14 miles.

Claire Schlotterbeck, founder of Brea-based Hills for Everyone, said the tours are wonderful, but not just for recreation.

"When you're talking about places like this, you're not just talking about fun and games," she said. "You're talking about places where people can go to heal themselves and reconnect to the land and each other, and we all need that. There's something in the human spirit that needs open space."

To make reservations for an upcoming tour, call the Nature Conservancy at (714) 832-7478.

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