What could well become one of the largest habitat preservation efforts in county history is beginning quietly at the Orange County Transportation Authority, with potentially tens of millions to be spent in coming decades to restore or acquire large chunks of native landscape.
The preservation push, meant as a hedge against possible habitat damage from a 30-year, $4.8 billion freeway improvement project the agency is planning, has ignited Orange County’s conservation community — though some have expressed concerns about how land wil be restored.
“We’re absolutely thrilled,” said Melanie Schlotterbeck, an Orange County preservation activist and vice chairwoman of an OCTA environmental committee now reviewing 26 properties for possible acquisition. “This is a great thing, and a model not only for other counties in the state but for how environmental mitigation can be done at the national level.”
The funds could be used to buy or restore streamside habitat, oak woodlands and stretches of Orange County’s scrub land, home to the threatened California gnatcatcher.
Measure M infusion
The money comes from Measure M, a half-cent sales tax extended by Orange County voters in 2006 to fund transportation improvements. A portion of the funds would go toward making up for habitat damage from road improvements and other projects.
In Orange County, a 2005 estimate showed that as much as $243 million could be used over 30 years to restore or acquire wild habitat; that number could rise or fall, however, depending on market conditions. At the moment, that estimate is down about 40 percent.
“The policy is to try to get 80 percent acquisitions, and approximately 20 percent into into restorations,” said Monte Ward, a retired OCTA official acting as a consultant on the project.
The environmental committee on Thursday reviewed 26 properties around the county that are among the top candidates for acquisition. Some will be dropped from the list and others added, and it could be months before the agency begins to buy land.
A push to buy property
Acquiring land is the priority for now, Schlotterbeck said, with restoration decisions likely to be made later. And the economic downturn could make the idea of selling the property attractive to landowners.
“The sooner we buy things, the likely cheaper they are,” she said. “It really timed out well with the economy.”
While no one knows yet how much land will be bought or restored, Dan Silver, a preservation activist who is also on the environmental committee, guessed the acreage will be in the hundreds, not the thousands seen in past land set-asides.
Much of the transportation agency’s preservation effort will likely focus on improving wildlife corridors, perhaps allowing freer movement of mountain lions, bobcats, deer and other species among areas of wild habitat.
Wildlife biologists for years have worried about increasing isolation of some animal populations, as expanding development throws up new barriers between their ranges.
A wildlife corridor at Coal Canyon, connecting the Santa Ana Mountains with the Chino Hills, could be beefed up with land acquisitions, while a long, dark tunnel beneath the El Toro “Y,” one of the only connections between the San Joaquin Hills and the mountains to the east, could be rendered more accessible to wildlife.
Large sums might also be available for habitat restoration.
Irvine Ranch applies for funds
That prompted the Irvine Ranch Conservancy to put in its own bid for up to $20 million to restore as much as 2,000 acres of a 20,000-acre natural area in northeastern Orange County that the Irvine Co. has offered to transfer to OC Parks. Fire-prevention work would be included.
The conservancy’s bid raised questions among some Orange County environmental activists about whether OCTA money would be used to replace funding commitments by Irvine Co. chairman Donald Bren intended to preserve, restore and manage the same property.
Mike O’Connell, executive director of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, a non-profit entity created to manage wildland on the historic Irvine Ranch, said those fears are unfounded.
The Bren commitment to the land, some $50 million doled out in varying amounts from year to year, will remain available no matter what other restoration funds the conservancy manages to acquire, O’Connell said.
The transportation agency has also accepted applications for funding from other groups. The environmental committee, meanwhile, will continue investigating potential land acquisitions, such as the land around the Coal Canyon wildlife corridor.
And while no acreage totals have been identified, the large scale of the project means government approval would come in the form of a Natural Communities Conservation Plan.
Such plans were used in past years to create two nature reserves in Orange County, although not without controversy. Landowners who agree to set aside parcels for preservation receive assurances that they will not be subject to new endangered species restrictions in the future — a provision known as “no surprises.”
That rankled some activists and preservationists, who said new scientific data often reveal hidden threats to species that could not have been anticipated.
Court rulings, however, have allowed the “no surprises” privision to stand.
Past controversies fade
Silver said the latest effort is nothing like the contentious conflicts in the 1990s to create the county’s first nature reserve.
“There’s so much less controversy here,” he said. “This is a program that’s really fun. It’s not like the battleground where you’re trying to fight developers. We’re all working together to provide the most benefits.”
(Register photo of Coyote Hills in 2006 by Bruce Chambers; the West Coyote Hills, near Fullerton, are among the parcels being considered for acquisition and preservation by the Orange County Transportation Authority.)