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O.C. Nature Reserve Is Far-Reaching, Visionary

March 30, 2003

Re "A Sellout, or Just Practical?" (March 14):

Almost seven years ago, The Times praised the creation of the 37,000-acre Nature Reserve of Orange County, noting that "Orange County has been a spawning ground for new ways of thinking about the coexistence of development and environmental protection."

Having celebrated the creation of the reserve in 1996, it is all the more disappointing that a Times reporter would all but dismiss the significance of Orange County's most impressive and comprehensive effort at habitat and species preservation.

The 37,000-acre reserve (to which our company contributed 21,000 acres) includes significant areas of 12 major habitat types and protects 39 sensitive plant and animal species, including about 19,000 acres of coastal sage scrub and other plants that provide habitat for some of the region's most endangered species, including the coastal California gnatcatcher.

Creation of the reserve was based on a landmark agreement that was much more than what your reporter described as a "handshake" between our chairman, Donald Bren, and then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt "for [Irvine's] Bommer Canyon and other land."

In fact, private interests, nonprofit environmental organizations, local, state and federal agencies -- including the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- came together in a broad coalition of business, development, landowning and conservation interests to approve the plan and implement agreements creating the reserve.

The result was a significant and unprecedented program that takes a broad-based ecosystem approach to planning for the protection and perpetuation of biological diversity.

The primary objective of the Natural Communities Conservation Plans program is to conserve natural communities at the ecosystem scale. In doing so, it satisfied endangered species requirements that would otherwise apply to development on other lands controlled by the participants.

Orange County's reserve has been operating effectively for six years, a track record unmatched elsewhere and far superior to the piecemeal, approach to species preservation that preceded this comprehensive and visionary effort.

The Times forecast hopefully in 1996 that "this plan, with its multiple players, seems to carry implicit recognition that even the tough local battles [between environmental and development interests] can be resolved." We believe the Nature Reserve of Orange County, one of the most important conservation decisions ever made here, is living up to that promise.

Larry Thomas

Group senior vice president

Irvine Co.

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