Future Brightens Over Poway's Blue Sky

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Will fortune finally smile on Blue Sky Ranch?

This wedge of Poway's Green Valley area that lies between the Ramona and Poway reservoirs has a history that reads like a daytime soap opera: "As the Wilderness Turns."

Blue Sky is the heroine. Developers are the villains. Poway residents are the rescuers, and the state Fish and Game Department is providing the happy ending. But, because soap operas never end, the 400-acre Blue Sky wilderness area will probably continue to exist from crisis to crisis, forever teetering on the brink of another calamity.

Blue Sky Ranch was a name given the property by its Los Angeles-area owners (including film star Jane Wythers) who planned to sell the land to a developer for estate homes. That was in the early 1980s, hundreds of years after the first residents--probably Diegueno Indians--chose the site for their hunting grounds, leaving encampment evidence behind that remains undisturbed today.

Blue Sky contains all the prerequisites for a wildlife Eden: two year-round streams, a waterfall or two, dense copses of coastal oaks, a few rare Engelmann oaks, grasslands, meadows, riparian habitat and coastal sage scrub on the upper elevations. Cougars, coyotes, deer, fox and other animals inhabit the area, as do hawks, vultures, blue jays and a few black-tailed gnatcatchers.

When developers sought permits for housing developments in the tangled thickets of the valley's lowlands and on the rocky hillsides with dramatic views to the ocean, they found that the newly incorporated city of Poway, which includes Blue Sky Ranch, had definite ideas of what the pristine wilderness should contain: nothing.

Dan Cannon, Poway's parks and landscape manager, said developers who were interested in buying the land ran into a snarl of state and local environmental obstacles prohibiting development in riparian wetlands and on steep hillsides.

"It was impossible to get the density there that they needed to make the project pencil out," Cannon said. One developer submitted a tentative subdivision map for about 120 homes in Blue Sky, then withdrew his plan after being told of the political and environmental problems.

Jan Goldsmith, a Poway city councilman, recalls how Poway residents came to the rescue. He was a founder of Citizens for Preservation of Blue Sky Ranch and began a drive to save the wilderness area--which was never a real ranch and still contains its native vegetation--and turn it into a nature preserve.

All that was needed was $2.6 million, more or less, to pay off the investors and put the land into public ownership, safe from development.

Goldsmith recalls the many ups and downs. At times, state funds seemed almost within reach, only to disappear into some other more-favored project or to be devoured by a budget deficit.

Meanwhile, the landowners became more than a little impatient at the volunteer group's slow progress in coming up with the cash.

"Nobody was really against it. No one said that we shouldn't try to do this," said Jim McCarty, another founder of Citizens for Preservation of Blue Sky Ranch. "I think even the owners were kind of anxious that we succeed.

"When we started this project (in 1987), we said we'd give it two years, and there were some big disappointments. But, about 18 months into it, we decided that it was looking good."

The group gained a strong supporter in veteran state Sen. William Craven (R-Carlsbad), who sponsored a bill to acquire Blue Sky with state park bond funds. Poway residents and environmental groups from throughout the county rallied behind the legislation, and it headed for passage in the final days of the 1988 session.

But that was the year that the Legislature wrangled especially fiercely over major legislation, coming to within minutes of a mandated adjournment deadline before reaching a compromise on the main issues. When the dust cleared, Craven's bill to acquire Blue Sky lay in a heap of legislation that was not acted upon. It died an unheralded death.

But Craven and the Blue Sky stalwarts turned their attention to other sources. They finagled $1.8 million from unexpended state discretionary funds, $500,000 from San Diego County, a few hundred thousand dollars from a Fairbanks developer who needed off-site mitigation for having destroyed a black-tailed gnatcatcher habitat at another housing project, thousands of dollars in private donations, and $30,000 from the city of Poway to cinch the purchase.

Then came the problem of turning the land into an ecological reserve and protecting it from its human neighbors, who use it as a dumping ground for everything from toxics to Toyotas.

City leaders, who had always sought to keep Blue Sky in its natural state, agreed to manage the preserve as an extension of the adjacent Lake Poway recreation area. But then Poway received an offer it could not refuse. The state Fish and Game Department offered to include Blue Sky in its new program to acquire vanishing wild lands. It would be protected from development and from the hunters and fishermen who are wont to consider the areas as game preserves.

The program was to be supported by contributions from what bureaucrats called "non-consumptive users"--Californians who want to preserve remaining undeveloped areas of the state in their natural states, simply to enjoy the scenery and to learn about the wild critters that live there.

According to Monica Parisi, a Fish and Game Department naturalist, Blue Sky was made to order for the publicly supported California Wildlands Program. She arrived at Blue Sky last March and promptly fell in love with it.

Oh, there are a few things she wants to change. The years of dumping will require a community cleanup effort this fall, and there is evidence of migrant workers' camps among the oaks.

She called the task of turning the rough country into an ecological reserve "a real challenge" and has spent her time assessing Blue Sky and determining just what can be done to prevent intrusion by automobiles and hunters.

After the cleanup, she will present her plans for a trail system through the preserve, carefully avoiding the poison oak, which covers much of the lowlands and hangs like vines from trees along the creek.

"It's a blessing, really. It keeps people on the trails," Parisi said of the poison oak. Less than 1% of the state's original riparian habitat remains untouched, she said, and Blue Sky is worth saving.

Later, she hopes to include an interpretive center and administration building so that educational tours and lectures can be given. But first, she wants a parking lot for the visitors and a gate to keep the trash dumpers out. A small office with a telephone would be nice, too, she said.

It's a big order for a state worker who didn't know when or if she would be getting her next paycheck until the Legislature ended its record budget debate.

The latest crisis in the Blue Sky soap opera wasn't over, however, until Gov. George Deukmejian completed his blue-penciling on the legislators' budget package and signed the document.

But the state Fish and Game Department's budget emerged unscathed, including the operating budget for Blue Sky and Parisi's salary for the coming year. But stay tuned for the next episode of "As the Wilderness Turns" to find out whether fortune has finally smiled on Blue Sky Ranch for good, or just for the moment.

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