The drought-ending rains of winter had stirred new growth among the grasslands, chaparral and oaks of the Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy, giving visitors on Earth Day a glimpse more lush than anything seen in a decade.
Gilbert Aguirre, president of the conservancy's board of directors, said Thursday that because of all the green growth, cattle operations on the ranch east of San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente are booming, wildlife is everywhere and the tour was seeing the 1,200-acre preserve "with its Sunday clothes on."
"Around you, who knows how many bobcats and deer are looking at us now because this is their home and will be for a long time," Aguirre told a special Earth Day gathering of students, environmentalists and botanists seated on bales of hay arranged in a makeshift amphitheater.
While the visitors were touring the preserve, elsewhere in the county on Earth Day the first 30,000 people to enter Disneyland were given colorful badges inscribed "I've Got Environmentality," featuring Jiminy Cricket.
And at Saddleback College, the student body chose from a daylong slate of activities including art and writing contests, information booths, a panel discussion by environmentalists and a talk by Paul Beier, an expert on mountain lions.
A big Earth Day highlight was the tour of the Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy.
At one time the now 40,000-acre ranch stretched from Aliso Creek to Cook's Corner to Oceanside, and included what is now Camp Pendleton.
While it has been carved up over the past 30 years to create Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita at its northern end, Coto de Caza in its center and Talega Valley at the south, there are no new plans for development south of the Ortega Highway, said Anthony R. Moiso, president of the Santa Margarita Co. and a member of the O'Neill family, which has owned the property for more than a century.
Three years ago, a two-square-mile parcel of pristine land was dedicated by the family to the nonprofit conservancy to be maintained as open space in exchange for the family's right to develop the Talega planned community near San Clemente. The conservancy land will remain untouched, without campgrounds or restrooms and open only to special tours.
Students from Mission Viejo's Capistrano Valley High School and Arroyo Vista School in Rancho Santa Margarita were treated to close-up looks at an assortment of animals living in the area, including a snake, tortoise, opossum, owl and several hawks.
Fifth-graders Rebecca Kuntze and Stephni Triebels both huddled around the opossum, their favorite of the bunch.
"He's really cute. . . . but I think they should let them go," said Stephni, 11.
"They deserve to be free. They need the natural habitat," said Rebecca, also 11.