His Down-to-Earth Message Needs to Get Out Quickly

Here on the summit, you can hear the wind waltzing through the leaves.

There is no noise, only sound.

A doe and her fawns graze not far from where we stand. A marsh hawk glides past. Smog is a fuzzy brown band on the horizon, floating filth above the rooftops and the cars.

We are at 1,700 feet, yet it seems just a short hop to heaven.


This is the wild, how much of Orange County used to be. Many still remember when.

Now it is a relic, part of the last frontier.

“If you take care of the land, it is going to take care of you,” conservationist Pete DeSimone is saying. He is at once earnest and sad.

We are looking north, over the rooftops of tile and others of shingled wood. There is Robinson’s Ranch, Dove Canyon, Coto de Caza, Rancho Santa Margarita and Rancho Cielo. They are neat, these houses, most designed to evoke a “Mediterranean feel.” They are all new.


Where Pete DeSimone and I stand is old and ungroomed. The design here is not made by man, and thus it will stay.

This is protected land, which DeSimone manages, the National Audubon Society’s 4,000-acre wildlife sanctuary. It is still called Starr Ranch, after the oilman who saw fit to give something back.

“The whole process has been screwed up,” DeSimone is saying now. He is talking, technically, about the law, its relationship to the land and to those who hold the deeds.

But his meaning is broader.

“Some people cannot understand the concept of a natural ecosystem and how they fit in,” he says.

“We could develop every square inch of Orange County. Where do we stop? . . . We’ve reached the point where we’ve got to back off. . . . But I don’t think the decision makers feel that way at all.”

Or so one may infer.

The local chapter of the Audubon Society, of which DeSimone is conservation director, is suing to overturn the county’s approval of the Santa Margarita Co.'s Las Flores development. This battle is between those who see Orange County through very different eyes.


From our vantage point, DeSimone motions to the site of the proposed tract, which, like all the others, is nearby.

There have been similar lawsuits, against other Orange County developments, in the past. The environmentalists have always lost. County officials call the efforts a waste of money and time.

“Las Flores is a firefight,” DeSimone says. “Environmental groups are constantly putting out fires over this and that. . . . I think we are swimming upstream a lot, but I think there is a chance to change things.”

Or else why bother at all?

Standing here, in the quiet, the reason rings clear. Nature, unfertilized and raw, offers solace. For a moment, one forgets about such things as war. Breaths are calm and deep.

It doesn’t last, of course. Soon one must leave this protected enclave for what we, in our perverse sense of reality, call the real world. There will be smog and traffic and a heavy bombardment of noise.

Even DeSimone, who lives at Starr Ranch with his wife, says he spends most of his time on “extra-sanctuary activities.” He’s become an environmental activist because to hesitate is to lose what’s left.

“This whole environmental thing is not animals versus people,” he says. “It’s real hard to get people to understand that. Preserving the environment makes their lives better as well.”


So DeSimone and others try to get that message out. It is less than glamorous work. Just ask those who fought to save Laguna Canyon. The movie stars only come out near the end.

The strategy is defense, a skirmish here, a battle there. Here in Orange County, it is not quite a war.

It often translates into the rallying cry, “Not in my back yard.” Which is fine, DeSimone says. As long as it works.

And there will be no Earth Day in 1991. It is too late to be spending lavishly on hype. Environmentalists must concentrate on helping to change the way that people think.

So far, the army of environmental warriors is volunteer, even though it is well past time for a draft.