Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Preserves Nature's Treasures in Metropolitan Los Angeles

Between Malibu and the great Mojave lies a land of unlikely contrasts and surprising discoveries. Rushing free way traffic and spreading subdivisions of the nation's second largest metropolis coexist with a "wilderness" of rugged mountains and rustic canyons abounding with wildlife.

Within earshot of the renowned Los Angeles freeways roam coyotes, mountain lions, deer, bear, bobcat, fox, and a

multitude of smaller animals. Vegetation includes some of the most biologically diverse found anywhere.

So expansive is the Los Angeles basin that some of its people, having seen nothing of the "wilderness" only minutes from their neighborhoods of concrete, delight in its discovery.

"Nature is literally at the back door, and the best kept secret is that most of it still exists," said Joseph Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that creatively uses a variety of means to acquire land and protect it as wildlife habitat and for public recreation.

"Viable habitat surrounds the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Our challenge is to secure a sufficient amount so that it can exist into the foreseeable future," Edmiston said. "Landowners must be approached when they are convinced it's in their interest to sell for open space conservation. We're dealing with a finite commodity."

Since its creation in 1979, the Conservancy has acquired 21,000 acres and identified another 15,000 acres within its 450,000-acre "zone" as crucial for preservation. However, the challenge of the Conservancy's mission is growing.

Government at all levels is beset by severe fiscal constraints. There simply is not enough money from public sources to purchase all of the land the Conservancy believes is deserving of permanent protection. As a result, it often employs innovative and unusual strategies that entail mutually beneficial collaboration with private landowners, developers, and local governments. For example, the Conservancy uses its real estate and biological expertise to show landowners and developers how less density and more open space will increase property value, and how elements of biodiversity fit into a larger natural picture, perhaps providing a link to a wildlife corridor or recreation trail.

Using such strategies, the Conservancy secured an unprecedented agreement with entertainer Bob Hope and the Ahmanson Land Company that will result in more than 10,000 acres of public parkland in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The deal, which ensued from the efforts of Governor Pete Wilson, the Conservancy, Ventura County Supervisor Maria VanderKolk, and others, provided permanent protection from development for Hope's prized Jordan Ranch in the Simi Hills.

The ranch was sold to the Conservancy and transferred to the National Park Service for parkland. In exchange, residential and commercial development and a golf course will be built on about half of the 5,000-acre neighboring Ahmanson Ranch.

Successful public-private partnerships are consistent with the Conservancy's long-term planning and objectives. Its ecologist, Paul Edelman, has pinpointed all of the land from the Santa Susanas to Santa Monica that the Conservancy needs to acquire and preserve as wildlife "corridors" linking segments of habitat. Corridors allow animals to roam, increase their populations and genetic diversity, forage for more abundant food, and escape from wildfires.

Edelman is concerned about 200 acres near Hollywood Reservoir and the famed "Hollywood" sign that a herd of 35-65 deer use for access between Griffith Park and the eastern Santa Monica Mountains. Late at night, when there's no traffic, deer cross Highway 101 on the Mulholland Drive overpass over Cahuenga Pass to get from one segment of their habitat to the other.

"If this land is developed, it will sever this connection, and there will be no way to reestablish it," Edelman said. "To have a stable deer herd connected to a larger ecosystem only five miles from downtown L.A. is remarkable ... it's a public resource that shouldn't be squandered." If the deer are isolated in Griffith Park, they eventually will become inbred, which will diminish their health and numbers.

Celebrity Territory
Mulholland Drive twists along the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains in the heart of the Conservancy zone, dividing the view between an urban panorama to the north and a mountain vista southward to the ocean. From the lookout points can be seen some of Southern California's choicest real estate, inhabited by Hollywood celebrities and others of the rich and famous who find respite in its natural splendor. Several celebrities have donated select land to the Conservancy for open space, trails, or wildlife habitat.

In the eastern Santa Monica Mountains near Sherman Oaks, actor Warren Beatty dedicated 20 acres in Dixie Canyon adjoining Longridge Canyon Park, entertainer Merv Griffin gave 105 acres in Benedict Canyon, and TV show host Dick Clark donated 57 acres between Point Mugu State Park and Deer Creek Canyon Park.

Barely over a year ago, superstar Barbra Streisand donated her 23-acre $15 million estate in wooded Ramirez Canyon near Malibu. At her request, the four theme houses, caretaker's cottage, garden, orchard, and tennis court have become the Streisand Center for Conservancy Studies and are being used for research, seminars and retreats.

John Diaz, the Conservancy's chief of land acquisition, says that Hollywood has contributed greatly to open space preservation.

"A lot of people say environmentalists can't work in tandem with business," Diaz said. "But the entertainment industry is the biggest business in Los Angeles, and we work hand-in-hand with it."

Within its Parameters
The southern boundary of the Conservancy "zone" the area in which it can acquire land runs along the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica to Point Mugu. The zone extends inland roughly 50 miles from Malibu north to Newhall and 65 miles from Thousand Oaks east to Pasadena. Major Los Angeles freeways the Hollywood, Ventura, San Diego and Interstate 5 crisscross the zone.

Much of the land in the Conservancy zone is protected for public use as parks, beaches, trails, canyons, or open spaces. Within the region is the 155,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, created by Congress in 1978 as a unit of the National Park System, and 40,000 acres of state parks.

The conservancy is part of the Resources Agency, and Secretary for Re sources Douglas P. Wheeler is a member of its governing board.

As owners of neighboring land protected for wildlife and public recreation, the Conservancy, California Department of Parks and Recreation, National Park Service (NPS), and local park agencies work closely together. In fact, the mountains are one of three areas of the state where the Department of Parks and Recreation and the NPS formally work together under a 1993 agreement. To enhance its buying power, the Conservancy sells some land to the park service at a loss and uses the money to buy more land.

Getting the Land
As illustrated by the Ahmanson project, the Conservancy acquires land through a wide variety of methods, such as purchasing outright or on "time," leasing, receiving gifts, or buying notes and foreclosures. An outright purchase is not possible or sufficient these days.

To expand its acquisition capabilities, the Conservancy has formed a number of joint powers agencies (JPAs) with local governments, which allow the partners to exercise their separate authorities jointly. For example, the Conservancy cannot mortgage land, but local governments can. One of the JPAs with which the Conservancy works most closely is the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA).

Targets for Acquisition
The Conservancy selects from an assortment of desirable parcels, placing highest priority on availability and social ecological values.

Much attention has focused recently on efforts of the Conservancy and MRCA to acquire and preserve 245 acres of 620-acre Soka University across the road from scenic Malibu Creek State Park. The Conservancy hopes to prevent the loss of core lands in the lower Las Virgenes Valley that would occur if Soka proceeds with plans to build the infrastructure necessary to accommodate 4,300 students on the site.

Also high on the Conservancy's wish list is the Santa Clarita Woodlands be tween the Simi Valley Freeway and Interstate 5. Coyotes dart across rutty dirt roads, black bear abide in berry-filled glens, and the craggy north-facing slopes of the Santa Susanas support a biological diversity of trees that Edelman says is unique in the world. The Santa Clara River that flows adjacent to the woodlands is home of an endangered fish, the unarmored threespine stickleback.

Newhall Ranch Co. has proposed to construct 25,000 homes and commercial buildings on the woodlands which the Conservancy believes would push wild life away from riparian habitat into the dry uplands. A portion of the woodlands already are preserved as Ed Davis Park in Towsley Canyon, and the Conservancy hopes to acquire about 5,000 acres more for open space.

The Conservancy also has its sights on a wildlife corridor south of the Pomona Freeway that connects metropolitan Los Angeles with the Cleveland National Forest. The corridor extends from the Whittier-Puente Hills along the outskirts of Hacienda Heights, La Habra Heights, Diamond Bar, and Brea to the national forest.

"By creating partnerships with private landowners and working creatively with local governments, the Conservancy is able to acquire and protect significant open spaces and parkland for the benefit of millions of people," Edmiston said.