In a move orchestrated to gain support for a controversial land swap with entertainer Bob Hope, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy on Sunday opened Rocky Peak Park and invited the public to make use of land that has been off-limits for decades.
A ceremony under cloudy skies was not an official dedication, but rather a tentative opening. It is uncertain how long the land, owned by Hope and commonly known as Runkle Ranch, will remain open as parkland to the hikers, bicyclists and others who traversed its dusty trails Sunday.
Straddling the Los Angeles-Ventura county line in the Santa Susana Mountains northwest of Chatsworth, the rugged 4,369-acre park is the centerpiece of a deal between Hope and the conservancy, a state agency that acquires parkland.
Under an agreement reached last April, Hope will sell to the conservancy nearly 5,700 acres of pristine land in the Santa Monica and Santa Susana mountains between Simi Valley and Malibu for a below-market $10 million. In exchange, Potomac Investment Associates will obtain 59 acres of federal parkland near Cheeseboro Canyon. The development company needs the federal land for an access road to reach 750 residences and a golf course proposed for Jordan Ranch, land in eastern Ventura County it has optioned from Hope.
However, if the Jordan Ranch project is blocked, the agreement allows Hope to take back all the promised parkland and sell it to the highest bidder. Various aspects of the deal are being studied by myriad government bodies, including congressional subcommittees, the National Park Service and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
But rather than wait to open the park until its future is certain, Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy, said he wants to make the public aware of the property and muster public support that he hopes will make it difficult for politicians to disapprove the deal.
“We want people to see what they could lose,” he said. “Public opinion will make a difference as to whether this will occur or not.”
Although Hope still owns the land, he has allowed the conservancy to use the new Rocky Peak Park, which it will buy if the deal is finally approved, said Julie Zeidner, a conservancy spokeswoman.
The deal is applauded by many wildlife experts, but some parklands advocates and environmentalists fear that the swap may set a dangerous precedent.
Mary Wiesbrock, a leader of Save Open Space, which opposes the swap, said she favors the acquisition of private land for public use, but wants Hope to remove conditions of the deal that call for taking federal parkland.
“This action will essentially deregulate our national park system--declaring open season on our most prized lands for any developer or landowner wealthy and powerful enough to negotiate a deal,” she said in a written statement handed out at the opening.
Rangers began patrolling the park Sunday, and curious hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians legally wandered the trails for the first time.
Many said they had been intrigued for years by the jutting rock formations at the edge of the park that until now they had only seen from the Simi Valley Freeway.
The entrance to the park is off Rocky Peak Road.
The hidden canyons and shady meadows of the park are home to a host of wildlife, from inch-long lizards to mountain lions, said Sean Manion, a conservation research consultant for the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District.
The property is an integral piece of an uninterrupted 35-mile strip of land the conservancy hopes to acquire between Santa Clarita and Malibu so that animals can roam from inland areas to the sea.
Manion said such a corridor is needed so wildlife can migrate and maintain healthy, growing populations free of the problems caused when species inbreed.
Manion said 874-acre Blind Canyon, located in Rock Peak Park, is a habitat for bobcats and mountain lions because of its dense foliage and precipitous cliffs.