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4,000 Acres of O.C.'s Past

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A hundred yards into Starr Ranch Sanctuary, it’s like driving 100 years in the past.

As the tiled-roof homes of the Dove Canyon community disappear in the rearview mirror, animals emerge from the woods and stare quizzically at the occasional vehicle driving by.

Humans are the curiosities in this 4,000-acre preserve run by the National Audubon Society, which aims to keep it this way. The public is not invited, except for an occasional day every couple of years.

But that’s about to change--a little, anyway. The ranch’s managers are working up plans for docents to guide such regular events as monthly bird-watching walks. More frequent, seasonal open days are in discussion. And in May, the public will be allowed to tag along with wildlife biologists as they place identification bands on baby owls and hawks.

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“We’re heading more toward getting the public involved in what we do,” said Pete DeSimone, caretaker of the preserve.

A perfect environmental laboratory, Starr Ranch has more than a dozen long-term ecological study projects underway, making the sanctuary one of the most popular wildlife research sites in Southern California.

“Driving in here is like seeing old California as it was long ago,” said Sandy DeSimone, who coordinates research programs at the preserve for the National Audubon Society. “It’s such an important place because researching can go on undisturbed. There’s so few places left like that in Southern California.”

Wildlife biologists have embarked on a study, to take as long as 20 years, that looks at the long-range effects of fire on open space, hoping to learn whether millions of dollars should be spent on reseeding natural terrain. Other projects include raptor research, underway since 1973, and the search for nonchemical ways to eradicate voracious weeds like the artichoke thistle.

The sanctuary also is a rural hideaway for environmentalists. The homey ranch-style complex hosts such seminars as a gathering next month of wildlife biologists from across Southern California.

“Regional planning of resources is our future,” said Robert Fisher, an environmental conservation research scientist at San Diego State University who is studying reptiles and mammals at Starr Ranch. “Studies that will affect that future are taking place here.’

The 1993 wildfires that blackened thousands of acres in South County also charred a large section of the preserve, giving plant ecologist Jon Keeley a chance to study how wilderness recovers from the devastation of fire.

Among his conclusions: The millions spent by public and private agencies on reseeding open space after a big fire probably is wasted.

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“Most of the money spent on seeding didn’t materialize the right results,” said Keeley, who teaches at Occidental College but is working temporarily at the National Science Foundation in Virginia. “It’s probably better to allow [eco]systems to recover naturally.” Environmentalists say Starr Ranch is a perfect blueprint of the Southern California ecosystem. A flowing creek feeds wooded canyons. Rolling hillsides rise from large, flat stretches of grassland.

Best of all, the terrain is teeming with wildlife.

“This is one of the few places in Southern California where I have seen a bobcat,” Keeley said. “And I see one every time I come back here.”

There are other locations in Southern California set aside for such research, but many are accessible to prying hands that can destroy years of work in minutes.

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“Most of the researchers I know at one time have had that happen to them,” Fisher said. “I once had our markers [brightly colored strips of cloth marking the study site’s boundaries] ripped up by people who thought they belonged to developers.”

Trail entrances to Starr Ranch are gated and marked with “no trespassing” signs. Only occasionally do sanctuary workers have to ask a mountain biker or hiker to leave.

The sanctuary is bordered by immense stretches of wilderness, with the 80,000-acre Cleveland National Forest to the east and 7,000-acre Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park to the south. The whole preserve was given to the Audubon Society by millionaire Long Beach oilman Eugene Starr in 1973.

For a dozen years, Pete DeSimone has been caretaker of the land. He lives with his wife, Sandy, and administers an annual $100,000 budget paid through individual contributions and the Audubon Society.

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If they have extra grant money, researchers are asked to contribute a little to the sanctuary. If professors or field assistants stay the night, they pay $10.

“As long as their research is compatible with what Audubon is doing, we try to make the ranch available to the general cause,” Pete DeSimone said.

For years, DeSimone ran the ranch single-handedly. Now that there are paid assistants available to share the load, DeSimone wants to open the preserve more often to the public.

“We want people to understand how important habitat is to their day-to-day life,” he said.

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