For nearly half a century, a pristine world of rock and water high in the foothills above Temecula has been a laboratory for scientists and a rare wildlife corridor linking the mountains to the sea.
The Santa Margarita River, the last fully protected free-flowing waterway in Southern California, tumbles over boulders and down a steep gorge as it rushes toward Camp Pendleton and into the Pacific.
“This is what Southern California looked like 100 years ago,” said Matt Rahn, director of the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, as his SUV bumped down a rocky road toward the river bottom. “There have been so many changes to this area, but this place has stayed the same.”
Yet that too may change. Barely a mile away, plans are afoot for an enormous gravel quarry, nearly 1,000 feet deep and almost a mile long. It would be one of the largest operations of its kind in the state, producing 5 million tons of gravel a year and annual revenue of about $60 million. Some 1,400 trucks would enter and leave the site daily.
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors is expected to make a final decision on the quarry next year. The long-awaited environmental impact report may be released next month.
Those who work on the reserve want the project stopped.
“A gravel mine of this magnitude is a massive change to the ecosystem,” Rahn said. “This is the only linkage between the coast and the mountains, and you would suddenly have a 1,000-foot quarry in the middle of it.”
Supporters insist that despite the digging, blasting and trucking, Liberty Quarry would have no ill effect on the reserve, Temecula or communities in northern San Diego County.
In fact, they say, it would be a boon to the region -- adding 100 jobs, reducing truck traffic to quarries farther south and getting gravel closer to fast-growing Riverside County.
As for the wildlife corridor extending from the Palomar Mountains to the Santa Ana Mountains and the ocean, project director Gary Johnson said that was long gone anyway.
“The 15 Freeway destroyed it,” he said.
Liberty Quarry’s claims about the project and its aggressive three-year public relations campaign to win local support have frustrated opponents, who believe it would not only damage the fragile reserve but also pollute the air and scar the landscape.
“They say our air will be even cleaner,” said Kathleen Hamilton, president of Save Our Southwest Hills, which opposes the quarry. “We don’t have enough properties like this in the world to sacrifice for this kind of thing.”
For its part, Temecula is trying to annex nearly 5,000 acres, including the 415-acre quarry site, to protect the reserve and preserve open space.
Hamilton has led demonstrations at which hundreds of people have carried letters spelling out “No Quarry!”
“Nobody in their right mind wants a rock quarry in their backyard,” said Bill Schork of Temecula, who attended a recent protest. “There is no benefit to us. Facts don’t matter. Statistics don’t matter. Go to any of these houses and ask them, and they’ll tell you nobody wants a rock quarry in their town.”
Ken and Lori Smoll moved from Fontana to Temecula because poor air quality left their son with respiratory problems.
“You can actually see and feel the breeze here,” Lori Smoll said. “The rattle in my son’s chest has stopped. A quarry would mean a big increase in pollution.”
Johnson said air-quality issues would be minimal as long as it didn’t get too windy.
“If the wind blows over 25 mph, the quarry would shut down. That’s the law,” he said. “The perception problem is hard to get past. People want to believe that this is a natural disaster, and it isn’t.”
Besides, not everyone opposes the project.
“We need the business, we need the jobs and that’s a positive, especially when you have a company that wants to work with you,” said San Bernardino County Supervisor Gary Ovitt, who also sits on the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. “I am hopeful that all the other issues can be mitigated.”
Rick Reiss lives in southern Temecula, a few miles from the quarry site.
“If people keep saying no, no, no to everything, what are we going to do when we need new parks and schools?” he asked. “This stuff isn’t made of matchsticks. It requires building material like concrete. I’m willing to give them a shot, and if it turns into Mt. St. Helens up there, I’ll be the first to say, ‘Shut the damn thing down.’ ”
Watsonville-based Granite Construction, which is behind the proposed quarry, has produced TV commercials touting its benefits. The company has also hosted tours of its Indio quarry and held town meetings.
At a recent open house in Murrieta, company experts stood by with charts and three-dimensional models, eager to allay residents’ fears. But despite the cookies and free hard-hat key chains, turnout was sparse.
Biologist Jeff Tupen, hired by Granite to study the project’s effect on wildlife habitat, said it would cause no problems that couldn’t be fixed.
“I don’t see anything that is a deal-breaker,” he said. “But it’s a challenging environment and it won’t be easy.”
When residents have asked if they would hear the daily blasting of rock, they’ve been told it would be barely discernible. Some are skeptical, since explosions from Camp Pendleton almost 20 miles away often reverberate throughout the area.
“Apparently they will use silent dynamite,” said Cliff Hewlett, 78, a project opponent.
Johnson acknowledged that blasting would be heard. “But the noise levels would not exceed a significant threshold and would not impact the reserve,” he said.
San Diego State has run the 4,500-acre reserve for 46 years as a place to study wildlife, plants, fire behavior and seismic activity. It is home to threatened and endangered species such as the least Bell’s vireo and the Southwestern pond turtle.
Around 1900, Murray Schloss bought the land and turned it into a utopian community.
When he died, it went into a state trust and was given to the university in 1962.
Rahn, the reserve director, said Johnson’s assertion that Interstate 15 severed the wildlife corridor was “absurd.”
In the dozen or so culverts that run under the freeway near Temecula -- some nearly 6 feet high -- researchers documented 310 animal crossings in three weeks, including bobcats, badgers and gray foxes, Rahn said.
“This is a one-of-a-kind piece of property,” he said. “Is this the only place in Southern California where they can extract rock? They aren’t mining diamonds; it’s gravel.”
Rahn watched the river swirl around swaying bulrushes.
“Putting a quarry here,” he said, “would be like putting a rock concert next to a monastery.”