LEBEC, Calif. — When real estate executive Robert Stine was hired by the Tejon Ranch Co. in 1996, his task was to transform a slumping Kern County farming operation into a prosperous development firm. But first he had to deal with a huge, prehistoric vulture that liked to hang out along the ranch's mountainous backbone.
Now, eight years later, Stine is confident he has solved his condor problem while also paving the way for construction of a new city and a sprawling mountain resort on the vast ranch 50 miles north of Los Angeles.
"We're going to have a ranch estate nestled under those oak trees," Stine said last week, pointing to towering trees amid golden grass on a mountainside.
"But the next 37,000 acres, for the next four or five ridges, we're working to provide a study area, a breeding area, a feeding area for the California condor."
Tejon Ranch has pledged to set aside a preserve for the endangered bird on the ranch's wildest backcountry -- about 100 square miles of rugged ridgelines up to 6,800 feet high -- but only if the federal government will shield the company from liability if condors are accidentally harmed or killed by ranch activities or development.
It's a plan hatched from Tejon Ranch's lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997, nurtured by a tentative settlement of that suit in 1999 and now proposed by Tejon as a way to help North America's largest bird survive while honoring the landowner's property rights.
The plan was quietly announced on the Federal Register on June 25 and discovered by outraged environmental groups two weeks later. It is now the target of criticism by those convinced that the wildlife agency -- which last week indicated it may not be in full agreement with the plan -- has thrown in with the devil.
"They throw out the usual pabulum about trying to help the bird," said Lloyd Kiff, a onetime leader in the federal condor recovery program, about Tejon Ranch. "But they're sort of the antichrist of the condor movement."
Some other leaders in the 25-year, $35-million federal program to save the majestic red-eyed vulture are also critical of aspects of the tentative plan. But they say it may be the best possible deal for the condor, given Tejon Ranch's legal rights.
"I think it's a pretty good compromise," said Bruce Palmer, former coordinator of the condor recovery program for U.S. Fish and Wildlife and an architect of the Tejon Ranch condor plan.
"People will be in close proximity to condors, and condors don't do too well with people things," he said. "But the net result comes out more good for condors than bad."
The controversy surrounding Tejon Ranch and the condor is typical of debate throughout California when large-scale development pushes into vital wildlife habitat.
But the debate is intensified for the 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch, because it is also a key link in a wildlife corridor that connects the Sierra Nevada range with coastal mountains and the ocean. Indeed, the ranch is negotiating the sale of 100,000 acres, perhaps including the proposed condor preserve, to an environmental land trust.
The ranch's highlands are home to mule deer, badgers, mountain lions, bears and elk. And its lowlands are habitat for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox, the rare blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the California burrowing owl.
Then there is the condor, a standard-bearer for California endangered species. Though numbering in the hundreds a century ago, only 27 remained alive when the last one was taken into captivity in 1987. After flourishing in the program, their release began in 1992. Today, 99 live in the wild, including 47 in California.
The birds migrate to Tejon Ranch from as far away as Big Sur to hang out along wind-swept ridgelines. They forage for animal carcasses and rest in trees. And they ride thermal winds that push them like air bubbles thousands of feet into the sky.
But between those Tejon Ranch ridges and Interstate 5 about five miles away, ranch executives hope to build the Tejon Mountain Resort -- a golf course development of at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of luxury homes on five- to 20-acre lots.
To keep the curious and sometimes destructive condors from being drawn to the new development, ranch officials have pledged that all new dwellings would be low profile, away from ridgelines and without alluring patios. And all utility lines would be buried.
Plans also include having a biologist stationed on the ranch to frighten away the birds if they land on houses or swoop into backyards.
Such precautions are important because several birds have died after hitting power lines, drinking antifreeze, eating shiny objects and ingesting lead bullets. Tejon Ranch has pledged an education program to recommend the use of nonlead bullets during ranch hunts.