Known for tract homes and urban sprawl, Orange County is also home to vast, public-owned wildlands.
A drone buzzes overhead, photographing a jutting limestone ridge that sits near the juncture of two massive gifts of undeveloped land by Orange County’s largest landowner.
“One side of that ridge is old and one is new,” says John Gump, a county park ranger, standing on a hill that offers sweeping views of craggy bluffs, sage-strewn canyons and a glimmer of blue – Irvine Lake.
The “new” that Gump mentions is a gift made this month by the Irvine Company of nearly 2,500 acres of open space. This month’s gift follows the developer’s gift a few years ago of 20,000 acres.
Orange County is nationally known for well-heeled housewives and rows of tract homes, but the reputation for endless urban sprawl is misplaced. In the last five years, the swaths of open space and parklands owned by the county have grown by 50 percent – to nearly 60,000 acres.
And that doesn’t include the massive Santa Ana Mountain Range operated by the U.S. Forest Service that lines much of the county’s northern border.
With the latest additions, the trove that Gump surveys now stretches from Silverado Canyon to Anaheim – part of the tangible and growing legacy of Donald Bren, chairman of the Irvine Company. Bren, in return, will enjoy some sizable tax write-offs.
Earlier, some questioned whether OC Parks was equipped to steward such an expanse of open space. The county, however, promises to protect and preserve these lands for generations to come.
What can you find? A deer skeleton, for starters.
From behind the wheel of his pickup, Gump points to trails that wind through Black Star Canyon.
Exploring this land has never been easier.
Today, there are 9.5 miles of new trails in this area and elsewhere. A new audio tour guides hikers along six or so points of interest.
Much of the county’s open space lies under a conservation easement, meaning access is limited to protect native habitats and wildlife. But for the last four years, OC Parks has opened more than 90 miles of trails to the public through monthly self-guided Wilderness Access Days and daily docent-led activities.
These public programs, along with land management and wildlife monitoring, are handled by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. The nonprofit has a $3 million annual contract with the county.
Gump points to a line of sycamore saplings in 5-gallon buckets.
He stands in the Baker Staging Area, an area with new picnic tables, portable restrooms and a shade canopy. On access days, this is open to the public. Gump says a youth group is coming to plant the saplings, an activity that wasn’t possible before the county took over.
“I think this is a good case study,” says Gump, who has patrolled these county lands and others for seven years. “There was very little access to this area, and now it has been expanded greatly.”
But in years past, some conservationists worried about the parks department’s stewardship of public lands. After the 1994 county bankruptcy, OC Parks’ budget was cut, along with those of other county departments.
It wasn’t until nearly 2010, according to reports, that parks officials felt confident that they could handle the financial burden of managing more land.
Theresa Sears sits on the board of Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, a conservation group based in Newport Beach. She served on the Environmental Coalition Land Transfer Steering Committee, a task force that four years ago assessed the county’s potential stewardship of Irvine Company lands.
Sears likened the county’s growing open space to an art collection. “You start collecting and sometimes you don’t know if you can deal with it all,” Sears explained. “Can you afford it?
“Acquisition is one thing, but proper protection is another.”
But times have changed, and so has the department, according to Stacy Blackwood, who took over OC Parks’ leadership last year.
“That was a valid concern at that point,” Blackwood granted. “I think from the Irvine Company perspective, the reason they’re confident in giving the county this additional 2,500 (acres) is the success they’ve seen …with the previous gift.”
Two weeks ago, the county Board of Supervisors agreed and voted unanimously to accept the latest donation.
Even so, questions have surfaced.
As recently as September, county auditors alleged that OC Parks executives, including former parks chief Mark Denny (now the county’s chief operating officer) had a hand in granting no-bid contracts from 2009 to 2014. The contracts, auditors said, went to a friend of one of the parks executives.
LOVE FOR THE WILD
Back in Black Star Canyon, Gump encounters a partial deer skeleton in the middle of a dirt road. He stops his truck to take a closer look. The deer’s skull is still covered in gray fur.
It’s a rare sighting, Gump says. He talks about the wildlife in this canyon: bobcats, foxes, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, even the occasional coyote and mountain lion.
“They’re not just passing through, they live here,” he says.
Gump doesn’t believe the deer fell victim to a mountain lion, which usually bury their kill. Taking a closer look, he says he isn’t sure how it died. “It’s the circle of life, I guess.”
Beyond the question of past financial strains and possible misdeeds at the highest levels of OC Parks, Gump sees a more fundamental issue: love of wildlands.
He explains the need this way: “People need to understand and experience and appreciate the land if they’re going to want to protect it.”
IRVINE COMPANY LAND GIFT MILESTONES
1897: Irvine Company makes first public land donation of 160 acres for what today is Irvine Regional Park.
1982: More than 7,300 acres of coastal canyon.
1988: 10,000 acres of open space in Irvine.
2001: 11,000 acres of open space; Donald Bren Stewardship Fund of $50 million created for long-term open space management, preservation, restoration and to enhance public access.
2010: 20,000 acres to county.
2014: 2,500 acres of land near Anaheim Hills, East Orange and Irvine Regional Park to county.
Source: Irvine Company
PRESERVING OPEN SPACE
The county Board of Supervisors this month accepted an additional 2,500 acres of open land and approved spending $300,000 a year on land management and public programs. Here is the breakdown of the latest gifts:
1,073.9 acres; near the 91 and 241 toll road in Anaheim; previously entitled for development of 2,500 homes.
Santiago Hills II
16.2 acres; adjacent to Irvine Regional Park in Orange.
East Orange Area I
469.2 acres; west of Irvine Lake along Santiago Canyon Road and the 241 toll road in Orange; previously entitled to develop 2,200 homes.
East Orange Area II
936.5 acres; southeast of Irvine Lake in the city of Orange; adjacent to Black Star Canyon.
Source: OC Parks