High above the Malibu beaches in the Santa Monica Mountains, the untouched lands are giving way to homes and roads. By day, gardeners clear brush and plant eucalyptus or palm trees. By night, the howling of coyotes is joined by the barking of pet dogs.
But between a community of snug cottages at Monte Nido and a line of mansions on Stunt Road, a spring-fed creek tumbles into a brush-covered valley. The watershed is home to nearly every form of plant and animal that has lived in the rugged hills since the days when the only humans here were Chumash Indians.
To biologists, botanists, ornithologists and administrators at the University of California, the unspoiled valley is the perfect spot for an outdoor laboratory to study the intricate ecological system known as chaparral.
Two properties, the Stunt Ranch and the adjacent Cold Creek Canyon Preserve, taken together, cover the entire valley. Each one is owned by a different organization charged by the state with acquiring mountain land for open space.
Now, after nearly four years of complex negotiations among various government agencies, the valley is scheduled to become the 27th piece in the university's statewide natural reserve system.
The Santa Monica Mountains valley will be the only Los Angeles County link in the reserve system and will be administered by a UCLA faculty committee, said system Director J. Roger Samuelsen.
The reserve system was established 20 years ago by the UC Board of Regents to make natural sites, representing different slices of California, available for teaching and research. The reserves have been used by scholars from UC branches and from outside institutions, including Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Alaska, Japan's Hokkaido University and the Soviet Union's Academy of Sciences.
Since 1983, UCLA has been the only UC branch without nearby natural land to use for observation and experiments.
"One of the problems with using state parks or any place that you can't control is that you can't do the continual instrumentation that you would like," said Mildred E. Mathias, a UCLA professor emeritus of botany who heads the reserve system's faculty committee.
Previously, UCLA faculty and students had to make do with three widely separated parcels in the hills above Pacific Palisades, western Malibu and Brentwood. All were in the Santa Monica Mountains, but all had their drawbacks.
The Palisades and Malibu sites required permission from nearby landowners in order to reach the property.
The Brentwood site, 57 acres near the San Diego Freeway, was "highly disturbed," said Arthur C. Gibson, a UCLA biology professor who chairs the local faculty committee. Old cars, refrigerators and freezers had been dumped there, and survivors from a former beekeeping operation were much in evidence.
Gibson said he suggested that the Brentwood property be sold. The J. Paul Getty Trust bought the land for $3.5 million in 1983 for a new fine arts center.
But officials of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency, insisted that if the school no longer wanted the property, the conservancy should have the right to take it for the price the university originally paid. The land had been a gift.
The conservancy took the matter to court. The dispute was settled when UCLA gave up the other two mountain lands to assure that the Getty sale went through. The conservancy got a total of 402 acres in the deal. Conservancy officials thought the properties would be good parkland even if scientists were not satisfied with their research value.
As part of the arrangement, however, the reserve system was to get a chunk of the 309-acre Stunt Ranch equal to the value of the land transferred by the school to the conservancy.
The ensuing four years have been spent haggling over what that equal value should be.
At the time of the Getty deal, conservancy officials were saying publicly that UCLA should get only 40 acres of Stunt Ranch.
"Now it's closer to 100 acres," Gibson said.
Created by State
The agreement also allows the university to use the rest of the ranch, which will be turned over to the National Park Service. Scholars will also have use of the adjacent 525-acre Cold Creek Canyon Preserve owned by the Mountains Restoration Trust, a private nonprofit corporation created by the state.
Trails will continue to be open to the public. A research scientist and a caretaker will watch over the land and make sure that experiments are not disturbed. An advisory committee of neighboring property owners will be established to help ensure that research projects do not affect outsiders, Gibson said.
Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the mountains conservancy, said specific acreage still has not been assigned to the university, but added, "The concept has been agreed upon. How many researchers has been agreed upon. It really shouldn't be a problem as far as . . . ownership, if they have enough for their building and a use agreement over the entire property."
Ironing out the last details "probably won't take less than two months and won't take more than four," Edmiston said.
The university plans to construct a 2,000-square-foot building with a classroom, a laboratory, a kitchen and overnight accommodations for about 20 students or researchers.
Samuelsen, the reserve system director, said he hopes to open the facility "not next year, but the year after."
When researchers arrive, they will find a land of spiny shrubs, tiny flowers, gnarled oaks and creekside ferns. Shades of green, from pale lime to olive to the darkest hues, combine to form a backdrop dotted with fuchsia, gold and purple blooms.
All six types of a brush called Ceanothus are found within yards of each other. An endangered member of the sunflower family, called Pentachaeta lyonii , also grows in the valley.
"I am absolutely certain the university will get involved with that plant," Gibson said.
He also expects scientists to study photosynthesis and the interaction of plants and animals. A complete climate log will be kept.
One of the few streams in the Santa Monica Mountains where water flows year-round begins on the property.
"We have pretty good control of the drainage system and that's important," Mathias said. "You're not worrying that somebody is dumping pesticide upstream."
The valley is "certainly the richest spot in the Santa Monica Mountains that we've been able to determine," she added. "It's a wonderful place."