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Conservancy Taking Habitat Under Its Wing

Open space: State coastal agency plans to use part of $490 million in bond funds to buy and preserve important wetlands.

July 21, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than any other agency, the state Coastal Conservancy has emerged as a force in Ventura County's environmental preservation movement--a big spender with big plans that are quickly becoming reality.

After years of preparation, the conservancy has received a $490-million windfall from California voters through two huge parkland bond measures passed since 2000. And it plans to spend a sizable chunk of that to preserve or restore Ventura County wildlife habitat.

The conservancy has already committed $32 million to buy more than 1,400 acres of prime coastal and riverside property in the county, and expects to spend tens of millions more to preserve thousands more acres.

Conservancy officials say semirural Ventura County--pressed between the Los Angeles megalopolis and rugged wilderness areas--has become a high priority because it still has so much to save and so little time to save it.

"Ventura's at a critical threshold: It has this window of opportunity where it can save its natural and recreational resources before they're overwhelmed by forces from outside," said Peter Brand, the conservancy's local point man. "The threat is there and the resources are there. When you combine those two elements, it looks like this is the place to spend a healthy amount of our [money] right now."

Among the conservancy's primary targets for acquisition are the banks of Southern California's last free-flowing river, the Santa Clara, and one of the region's few remaining large wetlands on the ocean, Ormond Beach.

Both the river and the wetlands are sanctuaries for threatened and endangered birds and fish. Ormond is recognized by the American Bird Conservancy as a "continentally important bird area" because it is a breeding ground for California least terns and provides habitat for coastal Western snowy plovers.

The Coastal Conservancy has also focused on contributing to the possible demolition of silt-filled Matilija Dam to restore the Ventura River to an unobstructed channel, allowing steelhead trout to spawn.

"Frankly, Ventura County is one of the prime coastal areas that still has open land available for purchase," said conservancy board member and Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara). "Los Angeles and other areas in the region are so heavily developed that their ecosystems have been devastated. In our area, we can still restore the habitat cost-efficiently."

Jackson said she would not be surprised if the conservancy eventually spends $100 million in Ventura County. "It sounds like a lot, but when you consider the cost of land and restoration projects, it's not."

In a broader context, the Coastal Conservancy is playing a key role in an anti-sprawl movement that has dominated Ventura County politics for nearly a decade.

Since 1995, residents in every major local city have overwhelmingly approved Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources measures intended to restrict urban expansion by requiring voters to ratify any new project outside municipal boundaries.

In a 1998 advisory ballot, 68% of county voters supported creation of an open space district to buy farm and ecologically valuable lands. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors agreed this year to put the issue to voters as a binding proposition in 2004. A committee is now deciding the wording of the ballot measure and the size of a tax to support the district.

In the meantime, the Coastal Conservancy is buying land, some of which it hopes to eventually turn over to the open space district or other trusts so that they could assume responsibility for its maintenance.

"The Coastal Conservancy has been invaluable in launching us to the next level," said county Supervisor Steve Bennett, co-author of the SOAR laws. "We started with [anti-sprawl] regulation and now we have to be thinking about permanent protection."

That has always been the plan, Bennett said.

"When we had the SOAR campaign going forward, we were told that if the citizens of Ventura voted for regulations to stop urban sprawl, it would make the Coastal Conservancy more interested in investing dollars here," Bennett said. "Peter Brand said they were pretty good with coming up with money if they had viable organizations to turn the lands over to."

Indeed, following Brand's lead in Ventura County, the conservancy started spending money even before it had much. With annual budgets of only about $10 million in the mid-1990s, the conservancy provided funds for coastal access reports and a study on the value of the farming industry in Ventura County and put up $300,000 in seed money for a fledgling farmland trust.

It also conducted detailed studies of Ventura County's principal river watersheds--the Santa Clara and Ventura rivers and, in the east county, the Calleguas and Conejo creeks. So when the bond money began to flow two years ago, the Ventura projects were lined up for consideration.

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