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Cover story

One with nature in Laguna

August 07, 2003|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

Artist Camille Przewodek paints in quick, short strokes then peers up from below her visor at the ravine high above.

"A friend of mine told me William Wendt painted here, so I wanted to come," she says, mixing paints with her brush to match the colors in the Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.

For more than a century, Wendt and other American impressionists have been seduced by the light, the land and the feeling that Laguna Beach was somehow different than anywhere else.

"I'm interested in preserving wilderness areas," says Przewodek, who lives in Petaluma. "If they develop everything, there will be nothing to paint other than urban scenes." The people of Laguna Beach understand that better than most, living as they do in an area that almost became an unbroken urban scene.

Instead, there is now a 17,000-acre greenbelt surrounding Laguna open to the public, some of it open only on weekends and by appointment. Recreational uses vary from snorkeling and diving to mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding and camping to docent-led and self-guided nature tours.

Known as the South Coast Wilderness, the area is composed of Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve. In all, about 933,500 people each year visit the area.

A new book of photographs and history by Ronald H. Chilcote, "Nature's Laguna Wilderness," tells the story of how a grass-roots effort saved the land surrounding Laguna Beach, a city of about 24,300, from development. It is the first publication of Laguna Wilderness Press, a nonprofit endeavor he and fellow photographer Jerry Burchfield founded to increase awareness of wilderness issues. The book includes stories of artists, train robbers, hippies and, strangely enough, a hippopotamus, at various times, seeking refuge among these hills.

In the 1960s, James Dilley, a Laguna bookstore owner who had a dog and a pipe, initiated a campaign to save the land surrounding Laguna from housing development. He was a renaissance man, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School who left the ministry to earn a master's and doctorate in medieval history.

His crusade had a typical beginning. He and his supporters went door-to-door, signed petitions, painted signs and marched. The ending, however, was not typical at all: The little guys won.

The first piece of land to be set aside was Crystal Cove, with other sections of land being designated for preservation over the years. The four key sections that now comprise the core of the Laguna Wilderness are managed individually, falling under a patchwork of jurisdictions that include city, county, state and federal entities. And efforts continue to expand the area.

Chilcote's photos do not reflect the struggle to preserve the land; they reflect only its beauty. Having been a part of the preservation effort, he says, there is a beauty in the mere vastness of open land in contrast to what might have been. There also is the beauty one finds by hiking for miles and chancing upon it in a grove of trees or sunlight upon fallen leaves.

The greenbelt is not spectacular in the way of forests or snowcapped peaks. It is more austere, chaparral with riparian habitat along creases where seasonal streams have formed. In the area known as Big Bend, above bright mustard meadows, there are sheer cliffs, where the roots of determined oaks find their way into the soil through cracks in the rock. And, there, they hold on.

Scattered throughout the area are sycamores that change by the season, waterfalls and Orange County's only natural lakes. In 1978, a hippo named Bubbles, on the lam for 19 days from a local wildlife park, was discovered hiding out in one of them.

"After being put to sleep by a tranquilizer dart, she fell against the hillside, causing her fetus to press against her lungs and suffocate her," Chilcote wrote.

Bubbles worked her way into the lore and soul of Laguna -- the lake became known as Bubbles Lake.

Jerry Burchfield and Mary Fegraus, executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation, stare at a coyote, which stares back at them, on a trail in Laurel Canyon. The coyote seems intrigued rather than afraid.

There is other wildlife here: bobcats, gray fox, spotted skunk, mule deer, one of the few pairs of northern harriers (ground nesting hawks) in Orange County, turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks, says Trish Smith, senior project ecologist for the Nature Conservancy.

Coastal sage scrub supports a number of unique and rare species such as the gnatcatcher, red diamondback rattlesnake and a rough-looking creature called the coast horned lizard, which, long ago was captured, varnished and sold to tourists as novelties. Laurel Canyon also is the only place in the world where the plant Laguna Beach dudleya can be found, Smith says.

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