Rancho Simi Park Officials to Use $65,000 State Grant to Purchase Land Parcel : Wildlife: The money will help to complete a corridor that will give animals unimpeded passage from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Los Padres National Forest.

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Enriched by a $65,000 state grant, Rancho Simi park officials said they now have enough money to buy a rugged chunk of hillside near Simi Valley that would close a gap in one of the region's most important wildlife corridors.

Owning a 10-acre parcel that is part of the only undeveloped area linking the Simi Hills and the Santa Susana Mountains would help ensure that lions, deer and other creatures can roam unimpeded from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Los Padres National Forest.

"Without it, these animals would be corralled in much smaller territory and would probably be much closer to extinction," said Rick Johnson, a spokesman for the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District.

Park officials said the grant still needs to be authorized by the Legislature as part of the state budget, but added that such approval is considered routine.

Officials said they hope to begin negotiations within a few months to buy a portion of the hilly terrain south of the Simi Valley Freeway near Rocky Peak from a private landowner.

Rancho Simi planners said the purchase is being approached with a sense of urgency because development is closing in on both sides of this wildlife corridor.

"As the area continues to get narrowed down, it becomes a choke point in the corridor between the Simi Hills and the Santa Susanas," said Don Hunt, director of planning for the Rancho Simi district.

"The greater the buffer we can have, the more functional the land will be as a wildlife corridor," Hunt said. For years, wildlife passages have been central to the strategy used by land preservation groups when selecting which properties to buy and which to surrender to developers.

Connecting open ranges of land ensures that animals can intermingle over a wide area, explained Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Animals cloistered in smaller ranges are forced to breed within a small group, and they eventually die out.

Biologists hired by the conservancy monitored several of these corridors to determine whether animals used them to cross from one open space area to another, Edmiston said. They found that the passages were well-traveled by all types of creatures.

"The corridor that Rancho Simi is looking at is a perfect spot for crossing," Edmiston said. "I think it's fantastic that they were able to get this grant."

If the park district can secure the purchase, Johnson said, it would become part of Corriganville Park, which is owned jointly by the park district and the city of Simi Valley.

Park officials would not disclose the exact location of the property, fearing that knowledge of its environmental significance would drive up the asking price.

"Unfortunately, when land owners become aware of how important the land is, they sometimes decide to hold out for more money," Edmiston said.

Johnson said that while certain parcels are high priority because of their location, the district is looking at several properties that would help ensure the corridor stays open.

"We want to preserve as much of this land as possible, and when we begin negotiating with landowners we'll have a better idea just how much we can buy," Johnson said.

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Wildlife Chokepoints Arrows show the route biologists have identified as critical wildlife "corridors" where animals can cross developed areas between habitats. Without these corridors, some believe many species wil slowly die out. Source: Paul Edelman and Envircom Corp.

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