Orange County Billionaire With Space to Spare;
Don Bren’s gift of open land lays a foundation for the future.
“Open space is freedom.”
Who said this?
Sierra Club founder John Muir? Or billionaire California land developer Donald Bren?
The answer is probably both. I cannot swear that Muir put it exactly that way, even though there is no doubt that’s how the old boy felt. I know for a fact that the words were uttered recently by Bren, the Orange County land tycoon.
I’m standing on the proof.
Below me and to the west is the great hazy human grid of Southern California, with the Pacific mirror-like in the distance. Behind me the rumpled Santa Ana mountains. And rising beyond, the shimmering heat waves of the inland desert.
Underfoot is treasure. This region’s gold. All the more precious for How little of it remains: raw land. Real estate. View property. Bobcat country.
Bren has just given this land to me. And to you, and to the future. He has set aside 11,000 acres for open space and put in motion the Process that will transfer deed to the public. The tracts are puzzle pieces that fill in two of the region’s biggest park and wilderness areas.
Someone else can take a guess at the market value of this gift. Posterity will record it as priceless.
Thanks are owed, and I’m happy to deliver mine. Beyond that, I’m curious. Just how does a land developer, a man whose father was also a developer, come to express the idea that quality of life is measured not just by what is built up but by what is not? How did Bren, the “other Donald” of America’s development big leagues, arrive at such an expansive thought?
I asked him.
“I believe open legroom means different things to different people,” he said in a two-page reflection sent by e-mail from his office. “Not only does it mean freedom for those who want to use it, gain access to it, but I believe it also provides a sense of comfort and security as a defined boundary that won’t be developed, as a buffer, as elbowroom.”
Freedom. Elbowroom. Comfort and security.
Some years back, my friends in the conservation movement began to drift Away from this notion of open space as a human need–at least in public Policy debates. Unexploited property was increasingly, and then almost exclusively, described as wildlife habitat. Then more specifically, as habitat for endangered species. This became the rallying cry for environmentalists:biodiversity, the preservation of species by allotting them land.
It has been an effective political tactic to forestall development, if Always at the whim of scientists and bureaucrats who manage the Endangered Species Act. However, it has also narrowed the terms of our civic discussions, implying perpetual conflict between the interests of animals and humans.
Bren has refreshed the tired argument. Ironically perhaps, the developer makes a broader and more durable case for wild lands.
Preserving open space for nature in our ever more crowded nation adds to human livability as well as habitat for other creatures. In urban reaches, an appreciation for nature close by maintains our connection to all of nature’s workings, including the place of humans.
To view nature as an abstraction or a distant phenomenon is itself unnatural, and vice versa. “It’s part of our being,” Bren said.
As owner of the privately held Irvine Ranch, Bren can now boast that more than half of the 93,000 acres of this pre-statehood land grant are in trust as open space–the 11,000 acres adding to 39,000 previously set aside. And boast he should. Back in the 1970s, the master plan envisioned only 11% of ranch property remaining green. Times change, and not always for the worse.
Yes, there will be development fights ahead as Bren’s Irvine Co. proceeds with its 20-year plan to build on other still-undeveloped acres scattered through six Orange County cities. But much of the disputed wild in the area known as Fremont and Baker canyons at the north end of Irvine Ranch holdings and the last chunk of wild Laguna Canyon near the ocean to the south will forever be places where a future Donald Bren can strike out on a hike and say, “I loved the sheer joy, the sense of freedom, even escape, that I had in the outdoors as a child.”
Today, I’m traveling through this new preserve with an ecologist from The Nature Conservancy. She has been studying this property for a decade now, hoping that some of it would be set aside.
We stand on a promontory and take in the view. In one direction, beyond The Irvine Ranch, an adjacent range of hills has been topped and terraced, Built over and paved. And the same with the next ridge. Turn around and there are four ridgelines of rock, chaparral, sage, prickly pear and freedom. We hear the flute-call of a canyon wren.
I ask her how she felt at the moment when Bren said this acreage would Be given to the public untouched. She pauses. She doesn’t answer. Silence.
Then I see that she is crying.