FIVEPOINT'S COMMITMENT TO PARKS AND NATURE
"Poll after poll tells us that people like their wildlife."
A brighter future for O.C. wildlife
The six-mile-long Coast to Cleveland Wildlife Corridor is becoming a reality
By Terence Loose | April 24, 2016
Since she arrived in Orange County over 45 years ago, Elisabeth Brown has been fighting to preserve wilderness and natural spaces for the benefit of coastal communities. The biologist and president of the nonprofit grassroots organization Laguna Greenbelt, Inc., knew that the more urbanized our society becomes, the more appreciated and necessary protected natural habitats are. To be able to take a hike and see birds, bees and perhaps even a bobcat, or just know that a thriving natural space exists nearby, is important for healthy communities.
“Poll after poll tells us that people like their wildlife,” she says.
Brown saw the formation of the South Coast Wilderness system of parks and preserves more than two decades ago as a huge win. Including the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, it protects 22,000 acres as open space wilderness, giving species like the gray fox, bobcat, cactus wren and countless other species vital habitats, while at the same time providing pristine parkland for outdoor enthusiasts. The system is one reason living in coastal Orange County is so coveted.
Setting aside open space is one thing. Ensuring its viability is another. O.C.’s wilderness system is analogous to two islands, Brown explains. “One portion is connected to the Santa Ana Mountains and Cleveland National Forest, but the coastal portion is not connected to anything. It’s an island surrounded by development and ocean,” she says.
In particular, the 7,000-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, a favorite among hikers and mountain bikers, is cut off from other open space by the I-5 and 405 freeways, among other things.
That isolation can lead to inbreeding and genetic defects that could threaten the future health of the park’s wildlife, says Tony Bomkamp, a senior biologist with Glenn Lukos Associates, Inc.
“There’s a genetic bottleneck developing in the coastal areas. There isn’t any genetic exchange going on,” he says. Brown worries that without a way to connect the parks, the wildlife in the coastal area parks will be jeopardized.
THE WILDLIFE CORRIDOR
Scientists say an answer is the Coast to Cleveland Wildlife Corridor, a six-mile-long, 500- to 1,000-foot wide linkage designed to be comfortable for critters to move through.
The ultimate plan is to link the protected lands in the Laguna Coast to the more than 150,000 acres of wilderness around the Santa Ana Mountains, including Cleveland National Forest, Whiting Ranch, and Limestone Canyon.
The Corridor was first proposed in the early ’90s, but, says Brown, fights over whether Marine Corps Air Station El Toro would become a regional park or international airport got in the way, because the Corridor runs through that land. Plus, there was the issue of who would pay for the Corridor’s design and development.
Part of that hurdle was cleared when FivePoint, which is developing the Great Park Neighborhoods near the Corridor, stepped up to fund and construct the central segment of the Corridor. The company has committed approximately $13 million for grading, native habitat plantings and construction of crossings for wildlife, as well as berms and plantings to screen the central section of the Corridor from future development.
FivePoint has sought and incorporated the advice of wildlife experts in the design of the Corridor. As an example, Bomkamp, who helped design the original concept of the Corridor, points to an intensive two days of field visits and workshops with some of the country’s leading wildlife experts.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced as a professional biologist. It was amazing. Honestly, it was one of the high points of my career to be able to work with some of the top specialists in the country in such a collaborative way,” says Bomkamp.
Brown, who was also involved in the two-day workshop, seconded Bomkamp’s high praise.
The important thing, they say, is that the experience led to a well-thought-out Wildlife Corridor, which was confirmed when both the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife concurred.
THE COOL FACTOR
The Wildlife Corridor will provide added habitat to a wide range of animals and plant species as well as allow vital genetic diversity. The bobcat is probably the species helped most by the Corridor, according to Bomkamp. It’s an adaptable predator that is vital for controlling pest populations, such as small rodents. Bobcats are “very skittish and don’t have the ability to move through urban environments,” Bomkamp says.
The Corridor will be off limits to humans, but it will provide a wonderful opportunity for observing nature while assisting wildlife to thrive in local environments.
“That has more benefits than just a healthy animal gene pool,” says Bomkamp. “My wife and I were out birding locally and came across a bobcat and her cubs. I can’t tell you how cool that was to see little bobcats walking behind their mom, just like kittens,” says Bomkamp. “It was really, really neat. So yeah, there’s a coolness factor about that.”