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PROPOSED EL TORO LAND SWAP : Grass-Roots Group Hits Paydirt Again

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The philosophy of the Friends of Tecate Cypress is as tough as its namesake--gnarled trees that flourish in the dry, steep slopes below the Santa Ana Mountains.

“Success,” said Connie Spenger, president of the small band of Orange County conservationists, “is failure turned inside out.”

Friday, the small grass-roots organization was reveling in the latest triumph over failure. With a three-page letter, the group had prompted the Irvine Co. to seriously consider the notion to swap a 10,000-acre swath of territory in the Santa Ana Mountains for 3,500 acres of the 4,700-acre El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

“The logic of this deal is obvious,” said David Kossack, vice president of the group, who noted that it would be far easier to develop the El Toro land than the steep terrain of the Santa Ana Mountains. “I think the most constructive criticism that we’ve got about this is that it’s too reasonable.”

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Kossack, a Santa Ana environmental consultant with a doctorate in genetics, is part of a small core of activists who have made the Friends a force despite a visible lack of cash, staff and headquarters. About four people run the group, turning to 150 or so supporters who contribute as needed.

The Tecate cypress tree gave the organization its roots; it formed informally in the 1980s to stop a shooting range in a cypress grove. The group incorporated in 1988 and the Friends relied on gentle persuasion and--occasionally--lawsuits to press their efforts to preserve the Santa Anas.

In 1991, the Friends and other conservation groups successfully persuaded an Orange County developer to sell the state nearly 1,000 acres of expensive land in Coal Canyon that contains one of the last remaining Tecate cypress forests.

But they didn’t have the same luck in the courts with lawsuits against the Eastern toll road, a Hon Development project in Coal Canyon and an Irvine Co. development in adjacent Gypsum Canyon.

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Spenger said she can’t even remember how they came up with their latest idea for a land swap to preserve part of the Santa Ana mountains.

“It’s something that’s been on my mind for a long time,” said Spenger, a Fullerton housewife who helped develop the idea with Kossack and a Santa Ana carpenter named Gordon Russer. “Those canyons are just so fantastic. They’re great habitats, and way back in the ‘30s hikers used to go there to see the sandstone formations and the babbling brooks. You have fresh air, long vistas and a long way to stretch.”


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