Nearly 40,000 acres of Orange County parkland stretching from the coast to the foothills -- once part of the historic Irvine Ranch -- has been deemed so ecologically valuable by state officials that on Tuesday they designated it the first California Natural Landmark.
The program is designed to recognize significant open space areas by placing them in a statewide registry.
Although the designation is only a title -- it does not require the land to be permanently protected or opened to the public -- officials hope the attention it brings will encourage long-term preservation.
"It definitely doesn't have any regulatory teeth," said Glenn Olson, executive director of Audubon California, which co-sponsored the bill to create the program last year. "But it's an incremental step that hopefully softens up landowners and moves them toward permanent protection."
The announcement, timed to coincide with Earth Day, took place in a wooded area of historic buildings and picnic tables in Bommer Canyon -- city-owned open space west of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park near the 73 toll road -- which is included in the landmark.
Elementary school students and Scouts attended, along with a smattering of local and state officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Only in California can you see a 40,000-acre natural landmark right in the middle of one of the nation's most vibrant and economically important urban areas," Schwarzenegger said before unveiling a map of the land, which mostly surrounds Irvine.
The rolling landscape features canyons filled with coastal sage-scrub, grasslands and oak woodlands. One expanse is near the coast, including Crystal Cove State Park and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park; the other is in the lower reaches of the Santa Ana Mountains, including the Limestone Canyon and Weir Canyon wilderness areas.
To make the state list, land must be mostly in its natural state and have the biological and geological significance of a state or national park. Each proposal, which may include any combination of public and private land, is put through a peer-reviewed scientific analysis. Landowners must pay for state parks workers to review their application.
"Orange County has what's equivalent to a national park right here, but very few people are aware of it," said Dave Raetz, director of public programs for the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, which operates 50,000 acres of protected parks and wilderness on what once was the Irvine Ranch. "You have millions of people who live within 10 or 20 minutes of here. We'd like them to appreciate the land and get involved."
Starting in the 1960s, the Irvine Co. began building master-planned communities on its land, but also set aside portions to be kept clear of development. About half of the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch has been preserved and is owned by eight public and private entities, including cities, state agencies and the Irvine Co.
"I'm hoping that this program will inspire other landowners to do the same," said California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman.
The state program is based on a similar program the National Park Service administers. Most of the Irvine Ranch open space in 2006 joined the national list, which also includes locales such as Mt. Shasta and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Next up for inclusion on the statewide list probably is land near Carmel, said Rick Rayburn, California State Parks natural resources director. Officials are eyeing other acreage, such as the Hearst Ranch on the Central Coast.
Topher Lambert, 15, who often goes camping and biking with his Boy Scout troop in the shrub-covered hills above his Irvine neighborhood, said the area was lucky to receive the statewide attention. But it is hardly too soon; one canyon he used to bike up and down now has housing developments.
"So it's pretty cool that they're paying attention to the environment," he said. "This is all that's left."