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Answering the Call of the Wild: Tarzan’s Retreat Is Preserved

The rain forest ecologist, the famously grumpy novelist, the state park executive and the board members of a private school have never met in the same room.

But by working the levers of love and obsession independently over the past 20 years, they have fashioned a remarkable deal to preserve the beauty and beasts of a wooded Sherman Oaks canyon.

And strangely, one of the ultimate winners may be Tarzan.

You remember: Loincloth, “You Jane”? That one.

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This week, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy board approved a land swap in which the state of California would trade several acres of a gorgeous grove of oaks to the private school for 12 sylvan acres that include graded but empty home sites.

While the math is a little strange, it’s a good deal for nature lovers--the culmination of efforts to preserve a largely pristine glen that one of its admirers, author Harlan Ellison, calls “our sparkling little gem.”

The tale of Oak Forest Canyon begins in the late Miocene era 10 million years ago, when a red tide in the deep seas that covered Southern California killed off

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billions and billions of diatoms, the favorite one-celled luncheon meat of many fish.

Now skip ahead 5 million years, when convulsive plate tectonics created the Santa Monica Mountains and pushed the final resting spot of fossilized herring, lantern fish and shark to the surface of the Earth in Sherman Oaks.

Another 5 million years later, in the early 1920s, historians say Edgar Rice Burroughs--creator of Tarzan and founder of the San Fernando Valley community of Tarzana--discovered a creek shaded by giant oaks in a little canyon beside that fossil-covered ridge.

According to Ellison, Burroughs would ride up on horseback along a path that became Stansbury Street, wearing jodhpurs and a safari hat. He would picnic with his family and pals such as Los Angeles city engineer William Mulholland and oil baron Edward L. Doheny. And more than likely he would daydream about his characters--Tarzan and Capt. Jack Carter of Mars--while watching deer and rabbits romp through the chaparral.

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Ellison said his own riotous imagination, the source of best-selling fantasies, screenplays and TV dramas, was lit by reading Burroughs’ books as a youth in Painesville, Ohio. And he has wondered ever since why Burroughs has never been honored with so much as a postage stamp.

“There might be children in Somalia or the Arctic who have never heard of Hamlet or the Great Gatsby,” Ellison said. “But you can bet they know Tarzan.”

In the 1940s, a developer clawed down the upper part of Oak Forest Canyon to string houses along Coy Drive and Camino de la Cumbre. Ellison eventually bought one in 1963, but several lots behind him were never sold--and have lain fallow ever since.

The land remains the refuge it was in Burroughs’ day.

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“Living here is a delight,” said Ellison. “We live virtually on 200 acres of watershed. We have wild lemon trees and loquats. Families of deer wander into my backyard to nibble on cactus. When the pressures of the world grow unbearable, you can come up here and hear nothing but the sound of your soul beating.”

About 15 years ago, though, Ellison’s reveries were almost ruined when a developer threatened to cut down the fossil hill behind his house for more tract homes.

Enter naturalist Arnold Newman--usually in his ancient Bentley convertible. Known locally as the former host of a television science show and internationally as an expert on the preservation of tropical rain forests, the Sherman Oaks resident recruited Ellison to lead a coalition to beat the builder back.

“I’m real tall when I stand on my charisma,” said Ellison, laughing.

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Ultimately, in a complicated deal with the developer in 1991, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy obtained the 109-acre hillside and turned it into Fossil Ridge Park. The acquisition included the lovely grove of oaks that reportedly hosted Burroughs’ weekend dining. But much of the overgrown terrain to the south was still in private hands.

The last owner of the lion’s share of the property rebuffed the conservancy for years. But he lost the land to his bank recently, and local activists saw their chance.

The Buckley School, which rests at the foot of the canyon, picked it up last month in a federal Resolution Trust Corp. auction for about $400,000. Two weeks ago, the school’s directors offered the property to conservancy land acquisition chief John A. Diaz in exchange for the oak grove.

Buckley Headmaster Walter Baumhoff said he wants the dense stand of oaks as a buffer for his football stadium and a nature reserve for his students. He said he would leave it open for hikers on trails to be built by the conservancy, and restrict its deed to prevent development or fencing.

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And how does Tarzan fit in?

Ellison said he would soon turn to Burroughs enthusiasts on the Internet to seek donations to help build a docent’s station at the top of Oak Forest Canyon. The station would explain the paleontological history of Fossil Ridge and present a small museum of Burroughs’ work.

Ellison said he would like to erect a life-size statue of Burroughs in the park, with another of Tarzan alongside. He said Burroughs bibliophiles would picnic on the property in May during their every-five-years gathering.

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We’ll check back in 5 million years to see how it all turned out.


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