Deep in the canyons in and around Laguna Beach, Orange County has carved out a 4,000-acre chunk of rugged brushland, preserving it as a wilderness park for hikers and bikers.
The county is now studying a proposal to let a luxury resort developer buy or lease a swatch of this public land and turn it into an 18-hole golf course.
The beachside Montage Resort & Spa has told county officials it wanted to build an environmentally sensitive course that would extend into Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, a county-designated wildlife sanctuary.
The nascent proposal has stirred deep concern among some environmentalists statewide who can't recall another instance in which protected wilderness land was rolled away for a developer. Such a move could set a dangerous precedent and undercut conservation efforts elsewhere in California, they say.
It has evoked outrage in Laguna Beach, where thousands of residents once marched to save picturesque Laguna Canyon from development.
"Here we are working so hard to preserve the land, and the county is considering ceding preserved land to a golf course," said Mary Fegraus, executive director of Laguna Canyon Foundation, a nonprofit that raised funds to set aside the 6,600-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, another county park.
"It will destroy our credibility," she said. "How can people trust that preserved land will stay protected?"
Open space, including public parks and private conservation areas, is preserved in many ways: by deeds, environmental regulations and state, county and city laws. Some restrictions are less flexible than others, but most can be revised, altered or dropped altogether.
Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, could be opened to oil drilling, and the Bush administration has proposed repealing some logging and development restrictions in national forests.
With regard to Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, the Montage -- which also is planning a five-star resort in Beverly Hills -- faces such a daunting set of regulations that the golf course may prove unfeasible, county officials said.
"It will be fairly close to impossible," said Bryan Speegle, Orange County's planning director, but "nothing is impossible."
Land that constitutes Aliso & Wood Canyons, a pristine expanse dotted by native oaks and sycamores, was granted to the county starting in the 1970s and ending in the early 1990s. The bulk of the park, about 3,400 acres, was donated by the firm that developed Aliso Viejo, the county's newest city. Other developers also donated parcels over time, and the county bought some of the land with grant money.
According to the county, the donors stipulated that the property be used for open space, roads, flood control and recreation. The land was originally designated a "natural park."
Orange County parks have several designations. "Urban regional," for instance, allows active recreation, such as golf courses. "Wilderness park" limits uses mostly to hiking and biking. Natural parks fall somewhere in the middle. They may have picnic areas and camping sites, but not golf courses.
In 1997, the county Board of Supervisors went a step further and declared Aliso & Wood Canyons a wilderness park.
To push forward with the golf course, the Montage will have to persuade supervisors to redesignate Aliso & Wood Canyons, or a portion of it, an urban regional park.
The hotel and its backers have declined to discuss their plans in detail.
"We are still in the very preliminary stages," said Carol Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the Athens Group, the Montage's developer. "We are in the internal planning process. It will become very public once we have something reasonable to discuss."
In private, however, Montage representatives have been meeting with county officials for months to discuss the potential hurdles the project faces.
County memos from those meetings obtained by The Times suggest the hotel would need to lease 60 to 80 acres of parkland from the county for fairways, greens and practice areas.
Early last year, the Montage and partners bought the 80-acre Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course, a nine-hole facility near the mouth of Aliso Canyon. Conceptual maps of an 18-hole golf course show the new links pushing north into the wilderness park along Aliso Creek.
It is unlikely that the Montage will try to buy the parkland, said Speegle, the planning director. By state law, supervisors would have to rule that the parcel was no longer needed for parks before it could sell it. A challenge to that decision could trigger a costly countywide election.
A redesignation and lease would require only the approval of the county supervisors.
To a county still digging out from its bankruptcy a decade ago, a golf course could offer an attractive revenue stream. The county owns four golf courses that bring in nearly $3 million a year.