Tejon Ranch as a model

Graham Chisholm is director of conservation for Audubon California. Joel Reynolds is senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Want to build a housing development in a wetland, or maybe a refinery on the coast?

Good luck with that.

Conservationists now excel at protecting our natural treasures. We've mastered public relations, sharpened our lobbying and built war chests to pay for armies of scientists and lawyers to build the case that developers shouldn't be allowed to grind up our wild lands.

But developers are veterans of the game too, and they win their share of fights. And while a win-some-lose-some record might be OK in baseball, it's not always good for the environment. It results in a checkerboard landscape of open space and development that does too little for the wildlife and wilderness for which we're trying to build a future. It turns out, though, that confrontation isn't so great for property owners either. So, recently, both sides have been willing to try a different path.

Just last month, environmental groups in Santa Barbara County struck a deal with a Houston-based oil company that will shut down controversial offshore drilling decades early in exchange for support for new drilling in less-contested areas. The deal also will net thousands of prime coastal acres for parkland.

Then there is the agreement announced May 8 between environmental groups, including ours, and the Tejon Ranch Co. It will protect up to 240,000 contiguous acres of privately owned, ecologically important land in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles. The deal also will open this sweeping landscape to the public, including a possible 50,000-acre park.

This is perhaps the greatest victory for conservation that many of us will see in our lifetimes. Located at the juncture of the coastal mountains and the Sierra Nevada, Mojave Desert and San Joaquin Valley, the enormous parcel is home to precious native grasslands, ancient oaks, Joshua tree woodlands and conifer forests. It is home to the endangered California condor and more than 25 plant and animal species listed as endangered or threatened.

In exchange for conserving 90% of this irreplaceable land, Audubon California, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups have agreed not to oppose three development projects on the remaining 10%. These developments, none of which has been approved by regulatory agencies, will still be subject to public review and comment and all applicable environmental protection laws.

Both sides had to swallow hard before striking this deal, but both came away with results they never could have secured any other way. And while these proposed developments -- which could include 26,000 homes, a resort community and an industrial complex -- would normally have conservationists spoiling for a fight, the prospect of protecting nearly 375 square miles was an opportunity we couldn't ignore.

Whether this deal represents a template for future disputes remains to be seen. But there is undeniable value in negotiating early, before positions inevitably polarize in administrative and legal proceedings. Oil exploration in the Rockies, toll road and power line construction through state parks, water allocation and storage -- these and other intractable environmental disputes might benefit from such an approach, but only when all sides are sufficiently committed to it.

Environmentalist critics say there can be no legitimate justification for agreeing to withhold opposition to proposed development in sensitive habitat areas. Maybe not. But the protracted negotiations over Tejon Ranch were not about approving development, and this agreement doesn't do that. This was about securing 90% of the ranch for conservation.

One need look no further than the Santa Clara River Valley, where Santa Clarita, Newhall and Valencia have sprawled for decades, to see what could have happened. There, conservationists have been battling against piecemeal development for years -- winning some and losing some -- and the result is a patchwork of housing subdivisions, commercial projects and unconnected open space.

California can't afford more of that. In the absence of this agreement, the Tejon Ranch Co. might have developed its land one project at a time over decades or sold off parcels to other developers. Over the next 50 years, conservationists could have found themselves squaring off in court against potentially hundreds of different projects.

As the population of California balloons toward 50 million in the next 20 years, our environmental challenges will be enormous. Inevitably, there will be battles to protect dwindling natural resources and open space, and conservationists must be prepared to fight. But the agreement at Tejon Ranch demonstrates that when the motivation for both sides is strong enough, there may be a better way to shape the future of our best landscapes.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World