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Orange County

Yesteryear's O.C. Is Back Again

After a controversial closure, Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary returns as a rural respite. It's 'a whole different world out here,' a visitor says.

September 02, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

While many of their Huntington Beach neighbors battled sunbathers and surfers for a dip in the ocean, Thomas and Sharon Brower spent Labor Day in a more peaceful fashion -- at the reopening of the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon.

"This is a whole different world out here," Thomas Brower said. "Away from the maddening crowds and all the development."

The Browers were delighted that they and dozens of nature lovers have a quiet place they can escape to again.

The bird sanctuary -- a 12-acre nature preserve run by Cal State Fullerton -- was shut last fall. University officials blamed employee departures, fears over Newcastle disease, damaging storms, state budget woes and the slow pace of the all-volunteer labor.

But many residents and environmental activists questioned the university's reasoning.

For more than 30 years, the university's foundation has run the refuge, located at the end of Modjeska Canyon Road, about two miles north of Lake Forest. Ben and Dorothy Tucker donated the land to the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society in 1939.

The bird watchers gave the preserve to Cal State Fullerton in 1968 on the condition the property be operated for the benefit of the public.

The Audubon Society has threatened to take the land back because it wasn't being maintained.

More than 40,000 people a year visited the sanctuary before it closed last September. Sanctuary supporters complained throughout the spring and summer that the university repeatedly reneged on promises to reopen it.

Last week, Karon Cornell, the university's retiring director of communications, was named the facility's director, and Birkin Newell, the manager. Newell, who was cleaning up his office Monday, said he is ready to put the controversies behind him.

"There have been some poor management decisions, and I know some people in the community have been understandably frustrated," said Newell, a naturalist and restoration ecologist who grew up in the canyon.

"But as I've been telling the residents, 'It's time to move forward. There's lots to do here.' "

Many who came for the reopening Monday noticed that plenty has been done already.

"They've cleaned this place up quite a bit," said amateur photographer John Hanna of Garden Grove.

"The new safety railings, park benches and the clean pond really spruce things up."

But regular visitors wondered why so much had to be done in the first place.

"It was disturbing that they closed it," said Miles Hoffman of Orange, who spent the morning at the bird refuge with his daughter Katie, 7. "It couldn't cost that much to keep this place open."

Hoffman said he doesn't know one bird from another, but loves coming to the sanctuary to read.

"This corner of the county is what I remember Orange County used to be like when I was a kid," he said.

"You can still hear the birds chirping and the leaves rustling with the wind."

Sharon Brower said places like Tucker are becoming extinct in Orange County.

"It's one of the few places that's not all Disneylanded up," she said. "You can sit, watch, listen and look."

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