The creation of the Nature Reserve of Orange County in 1996 was a landmark event in every sense. Some 37,000 pristine acres from the coast to the Santa Ana Mountains were designated for the preservation of dozens of rare plants and animals. In return, developers received a sense of assurance about what other land they would be able to develop. The agreement was sufficiently innovative that it became a reference point in a national conversation about balancing preservation and development.
Time is the test of any experiment, and now that a four-year agreement is expiring in which the county provides staff and office space for administration, the question of how the preserve will be managed in the future is on the table. Partisans are asking important basic questions. For example, for whom should such a reserve exist, and how should the program be run?
While a study committee ponders its charge with a pledge to report to the full board in mid-March, a couple of things are clear at the outset. There needs to be better provision for public participation in the management process and an effort made to incorporate expertise in habitat and species into the leadership.
The makeup of the committee that is looking at how to run the preserve is itself top-heavy in representatives of major institutions, a criticism environmentalists apply to the larger board. That committee has a senior executive of the Irvine Co. and representatives of the county, Southern California Edison, the Transportation Corridor Agencies, the Metropolitan Water District and the city of Irvine. Only board member and biologist Elisabeth Brown, who wants the reserve to be something more than an extension of the county’s planning apparatus, can be said to represent an environmental perspective.
The initial response to this criticism has been that the makeup of the board and the direction of its work are provided for in the original agreement. That may be so, but this agreement should not be perceived simply as a way to ensure that developers can do what they like outside the borders of the reserve. The reserve should have its own environmental and biological objectives.
Tim Neely, the current executive director, has other county responsibilities and has become a lightning rod for criticism from environmentalists. The reserve needs to be managed at some level by people who know about rare plants and animals and can figure out how to protect them.
The final product should be a reserve that does more than give developers a way to say that they have done their part for the environment. It needs to be committed to the flourishing of remaining wilderness and the preservation of its various species.